- The Washington Times - Friday, September 4, 2009

When the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced this summer that it was doubling the number of best-picture nominees, some pessimistic critics wondered if there would be 10 movies good enough to deserve the nod. We’re closer to answering that question — and the answer doesn’t look good.

Film-releases.com, which tracks openings, has announced that American distributors are scheduled to release 40 percent fewer films from now until December — the time of year traditionally reserved for quality films with hopes of Oscar nominations — than during the same period last year. The number of releases will rise slightly, as films snapped up at this month’s Toronto International Film Festival are released in time for Oscar consideration. Yet even allowing for this Toronto effect, we’re still likely to see a third fewer films this fall, the Web site’s Dora Kappou has estimated.

In short, the supply of award-worthy titles likely will shrink significantly the very year the industry’s top awards ceremony demands more of them.

The reason for this dearth of quality films? The leading cause, arguably, is that last year some studios shuttered the very divisions charged with making such films. (The recession, for once, isn’t the culprit. It takes a while to make a movie — many of those being released this fall were filmed last year and greenlighted earlier than that, long before the economic crisis came to a head last fall.)

Big studios often have smaller arms that put out the “prestige” pictures that garner critical acclaim but usually don’t make the money the studios’ big-budget blockbusters do. Fox released the “X-Men” and “Night at the Museum” franchise flicks, while its Fox Searchlight division offered “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Little Miss Sunshine.”

Those prestige divisions release the kind of movies that come out in the fall — but they’re a dying institution. And the movies they make might be dying along with them.

Last year, Warner Bros. shut down two of its divisions, Warner Independent Pictures and Picturehouse. Paramount folded Paramount Vantage into its parent company, laying off much of the staff. Warner and Paramount decided those divisions weren’t making enough money to justify their existence.

It’s not because they weren’t successful in what you might think was their mission — making good films. Paramount Vantage was shuttered just after making two films that earned Oscar gold — “There Will Be Blood” and best picture-winner “No Country for Old Men.” Warner Independent had a critical and commercial hit on its hands — but didn’t realize it. When Warner closed the division, it thought about sending “Slumdog” straight to DVD before finally selling rights to Fox Searchlight.

These two studios also have made the most money at the box office this year. Warner had the hits “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” and “The Hangover,” while Paramount had “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” and “Star Trek.” It seems these studios have decided to concentrate on churning out blockbusters.

It’s worth asking whether American studios like these have, to some extent, given up on making prestige films. The box office has been very good to Hollywood the past few years — and it has continued to prosper, even through the recession. People are still going to the movies — and the studios can afford to make them.

Perhaps one problem is that studios like to spend, even where it doesn’t make sense. Paramount Vantage has had an enviable slate the past few years but didn’t make much money on those films — it spent too much, especially on marketing. Fox Searchlight — with “Slumdog,” “Sunshine” and “Juno,” it’s one of the industry’s biggest success stories — is known for being tightfisted; it is said it won’t spend more than $15 million on a film.

For lovers of quality film, the news isn’t likely to get better. The recession hasn’t hit the box office — but it has hit Hollywood. I’ve interviewed a number of players, and everyone I’ve asked who makes smaller pictures has said the recession has made making those kinds of films more difficult. From actors such as Paul Giamatti to filmmakers such as Nora Ephron, they’ve all said that studios are even more hesitant to take risks — which means it’s harder than ever to get a film that’s not a spectacle greenlighted.

Of course, a smaller number of films doesn’t necessarily mean a smaller number of films of quality. But studios reluctant to be experimental seem likelier to make formulaic fare. The Oscars, the showcase of the American film industry, might have to open its doors to the world. One of the best films I’ve seen this year is “Adoration,” a film made by the Canadian director Atom Egoyan that got little attention on its release this summer — perhaps because it has no big stars.

InContention.com, which covers film awards, has mentioned a couple of movies as Oscar contenders that might not have gotten attention in years past. “Bright Star” and “An Education,” both thoughtful films, were made in Britain. “Bright Star” is being released by a new distributor, Apparition, which was just started by Bob Berney — who used to head Picturehouse, that shuttered division of Warner Bros.

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