Oscars 2013: The Power of the Low Budget Film
While this year’s Academy Awards summarized another successful year in film for millions of viewers from around the world, this year’s nominees were unfolding a different spectacle. Although “Argo” took the top prize, the consolation of being nominated for Best Picture still remains quite the accolade for the respective artists, particularly for the brains behind “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” By acknowledging the accomplishments of low-budget filmmakers, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences fosters a stable environment and broadcasts the value of smaller productions in Hollywood.
Considering the simple fact that Hollywood has traditionally been an incredibly profitable industry, loading up a film with explosive special effects, marketable A-list talent, and a nationwide advertising campaign tends to correlate with accessibility to a vast audience. For films destined for the Red Carpet like “Argo” and “Lincoln,” this national viewership is key to attaining the necessary critical acclaim and box-office numbers to achieve a monstrous list of nominations.
But for films like “Beast of the Southern Wild,” this is simply not the case. The winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, “Beasts” had its run on the independent film circuit, specifically with art house-oriented theatres in LA and New York. For a film like “Beasts” to achieve any sort of award consideration, it must rely on word of mouth and incredible reviews, a much more daunting task. And most of the time, these independent films fail to garner the necessary momentum to make it into the expanded Best Picture category.
Although director Benh Zeitlin has enough knowledge of the industry to know that “Beasts” did not pose a serious threat to winning the Oscar, the nomination itself is nearly as large an award. When the Academy recognizes films as small as “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which had a $1.8 million budget, the Academy is essentially recognizing the fact that in today’s film industry, it does not necessarily take the backing of a major studio to produce an endearing and financially successful film.
Traditionally, the film festival circuit has been the only key outlet for the success of an independent film. Particularly for higher-key festivals like Sundance, the goal does not particularly pertain to earning awards but rather to picking up a distributor for theatre release. At Sundance, Fox Searchlight acquired the rights to “Beasts” and prepped it for a June 27th release. Weinstein Co. purchased this year’s Grand Jury Prize Winner, “Fruitvale,” a dramatic rendition of the 2009 Oakland shooting of Oscar Grant, for the meager sum of $2 million.
However, there seems to be a more recent trend rippling through Hollywood that has championed the potential profit margin of low-budget pictures. Considering the current state of the nation’s economy, studios tend to avoid rushing to production high-budget films that contain a particular bit of risk in potential box office returns. Distribution companies are now, more than ever, seeking out production companies that can consistently guarantee positive returns with quality low-budget features that have some sort of marketability. No one better epitomizes this than up-and-coming producer Jason Blum and his work for the horror genre with Blumhouse Productions.
Until 2000, Blum worked as the co-head of Acquisitions and co-Productions department at Miramax, where his primary specialty was assessing the financial potential of films. Now, he stands as the multi-millionaire CEO of Blumhouse Productions, which has the lucrative titles of “Paranormal Activity,” “Insidious,” and “Sinister,” all three of which grossed at least 2500% of their initial budgets. Blum is currently attempting to branch out to other genres with the promise of producing quality films with lower budgets and high returns. Even last weekend’s release of “Dark Skies,” one of Blumhouse Production’s underperforming pictures, generated $8.85 million in its opening weekend with a budget of $3.5 million.
The days of the importance of featuring prominent A-listers with astronomical salaries are not necessarily over, but that model is definitely battling stiff competition. Arnold Schwarzeneggar and Sylvester Stallone saw this subtle transformation first hand with the crash and burn of both their action flicks “The Last Stand” and “Bullet to the Head.” Although prominent superhero flicks will still generate hundreds of millions of dollars, low-budget works that retain the art of film and the quality of story can still be appreciated.
As the Academy continues to recognize the achievements of these smaller productions, there seems to be some hope for film as studios seek out safer and safer investments. While old ideas are recycled, remade and then made into sequels time and time again, film enthusiasts derive power from the accomplishments of smaller productions. Congratulations to the accomplishments of Ben Zeitlin and “Beasts of Southern Wild” for earning a Best Picture nomination and for championing the plethora of exemplary independent films in 2012.
Connor P. McKnight ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Grays Hall.