Who doesn’t love the Oscars? It takes a real curmudgeon not to be dazzled by the frocks and flashbulbs and a flutter at the bookie’s. No harm done. But it increasingly causes significant collateral damage, not least on the paying cinemagoer.
Let me qualify that. If the paying cinemagoer is a teenage boy or girl – long since identified as the target audience of most Hollywood blockbusters – then Oscar time will elicit no more than a shrug and a “whatever”. Last weekend’s US box office was dominated by broad comedy Identity Thief, zombie romance Warm Bodies and horror thrill-ride Mama, none of which was designed to trouble the Academy. But if you are, let’s say, a grown-up, someone with an appetite for more challenging, nutritious cinematic fare, then the official movie awards season – from the Golden Globe nominations in December to Oscar night – is a nightmare.
Why? Because what seems like a year’s-worth of prestige American pictures arrive all at once. Since Christmas, we’ve had the grand historical epic Lincoln, the literary fantasia Life of Pi, talky, factual political thrillers Zero Dark Thirty and Argo, and even the intelligent take on the rom-com with a psychotherapeutic twist, Silver Linings Playbook (which, like Argo, came out in November but only picked up steam when it picked up nominations and was re-advertised).
Add to these the teenager-repelling Les Misérables, French-language film Amour, whose themes of old age and death ensure a more mature crowd, and the 18-certificate Django Unchained, whose appeal beyond cartoon violence is assisted by a working knowledge of old movies, and you have an unseemly bottleneck of discerning viewers who know how to turn their mobiles off.
Why do the studios and the distributors do it? Guess. Because awards kudos helps market less obviously sexy movies. But it’s an expensive business seeing all the films you want to see in a concertinaed timeframe, especially in the new year, when you’ve been shaken down for small change by the Christmas overspend.
I see as many movies as I can in the cinema. As such I’ve experienced many full houses at my local cinema since the beginning of January. Bums on seats is clearly great news for the cinemas, but it’s not just punters who lose out, due to the sheer concentration of quality. In 2009, awards-magnets Frost/Nixon and Milk, which might ordinarily have benefited in kind, found their profits in the UK squeezed out by the more obviously appealing Slumdog Millionaire. Meanwhile arthouse chains find themselves replacing higher-profile films before their potential has been squeezed in order to accommodate the next Oscar-nominated indie.
Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes summed up the downside of the top-heavy movie calendar on Radio 4 recently: “Seeing Bruce Willis being shot 68 times an hour is not very entertaining once you reach a certain point in your life. It doesn’t cater for the adult viewer who wants to be challenged and learn something they didn’t know before. And that takes you back to television.”
Of course. So worry not as Hollywood slides cravenly back into exploiting the adolescent market for the next nine months. As we all know, intelligent, prestige television drama – increasingly made by and starring big names from cinema – is a year-round feast.
Roll on the morning after the Oscars before.
Andrew Collins is Radio Times film editor
Coverage of the 2013 Oscars ceremony is live On Sky Movies Oscars from 11:30pm on Sunday 24 February. Oscars 2013: Red Carpet Live is on Sunday at 11:30pm on Sky Living; highlights 10pm Monday