Oscar Wrap: Indies Win Big Last Night
The Independent Film & Television Alliance issued a release late yesterday highlighting the 17 Academy Awards handed out last night to independent films. Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist took five of those wins and Martin Scorsese's Hugo, which won in several categories honoring that film's groundbreaking digital 3D production, also took home five Academy Awards. This got me thinking: Once upon a time, indie films lived in a low-budget world all their own, far outside the studio system in terms of A-list talent and box-office projections. Sure, A-listers often get involved with them for a variety of reasons. Meryl Streep says she exclusively prefers shooting low budget films, where she can do her best work in a limited number of takes. But as the term independent film has widened, so have its budgets.
What exactly can money buy? In Scorsese's case, the talent and time not just to shoot and manipulate thousands of perfectly calibrated 3D shots but to consider new ways to use them to tell a story. Reinvention is what indie film has always done best. Still, Hugo's $170 million budget—the same amount, by the way, spent for the visual effects redo of Tron in 2010—was more than ten times The Artist's modest $15 million production cost. Looked at another way, the last Harry Potter film had a budget of only $125 million, though one must assume that many of the returning cast and key crew reduced their salaries for a share of the film's much more lucrative—and already six-times proven—box office receipts. Hugo was produced by Santa Monica's GK Films, which also produced Best Animated Feature winner Rango for about $135 million, enough to tap the full animation services of ILM.
Scorsese's budget allowed him to choose well, too, with an indie eye on craft but a longer view on the box office. His long-time collaborator Rob Legato, who won last night for supervising Hugo's visual effects, was Cameron's VFX pipeline manager on Avatar and won an Oscar for his effects work on Titanic, the second biggest performer ever at the box office.
Another interesting statistic cited by the IFTA: With The Artist's win last night for Best Picture, independent films now make up some two-thirds (20 in all) of Best Picture winners from the past 31 years. Even if indie film budgets are now all over the map, by those numbers, non-studio films still have the best odds at taking home the Academy's top prize, only increasing the rising value of so-called indie clout. Unfortunately, those micro-budgeted indie films orbiting that coveted inner circle still have a pretty long shot at Oscar gold, and an even longer shot at the kinds of distribution deals bigger budgets make happen.