Oscar: Indies Versus Hollywood–Independent Cinema Growing Influence on Awards

For the first two decades, the big Hollywood studios dominated the Oscars. However, in 1946, when independent producer Samuel Goldwyn’s The Best Years of Our Lives swept most of the Oscars, it created shock waves, and the beginning of the decline of the studios’ dominance.

Three Best Picture winners in the 1950s–Marty, Around the World in 80 Days, and The Bridge on the River Kwai–were made outside of mainstream Hollywood.

The flowering of the independents and their impact on the Oscars became most visible in 1985, when Kiss of the Spider Woman, a small-budget film financed by Island Alive, was surprisingly nominated for the Best Picture. William Hurt won Best Actor for his performance in that film, and Geraldine Page won Best Actress for The Trip to Bountiful, also produced by a small, Non-Hollywood Company.

Indeed, in 1986, all five Oscar nominees were made outside of the Hollywood establishment: Oliver Stone’s Platoon, which won, James Ivory’s A Room With A View, Roland Joffe’s The Mission, Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, and Randa Haines’s Children of a Lesser God. The blockbuster success of the Vietnam War film Platoon, which sold over a hundred million dollars worth of tickets even before winning the Best Picture, and the solid boxoffice receipts of A Room With a View proved that there is money to be made out of specialized, quality films. These movies also showed that Hollywood was opening up its gates to offbeat, unusual work. The message was loud and clear: The indies are marching into the mainstream.

The boxoffice success of Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape in 1989 was yet another piece of evidence that there was vibrant life outside of the system. sex, lies and videotape was not an avantgarde film, but it was also not the result of consensus moviemaking. Soderbergh’s first film showcased a talented, selfassured director who came (in Hollywood terms) out of nowhere to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. With production costs of 1 million dollars and grosses of 25 million, sex, lies and videotape boasted a better inputoutput ratio than the hugely successful Batman (which cost over 50 million and earned 245 million). This intimate film, which was nominated for the original screenplay Oscar, may well have been the most profitable movie of the entire decade.

In 1992, Howards End, The Crying Game, and The Player were not only boxoffice smashes, they also garnered more Oscar nominations than the big studio releases. This led mainstream Hollywood to seek more extensive inroads into the independent community. Hollywood began to understand that indies are the soul of the medium in a way that the potboilers of Macaulay Culkin (of the Home Alone movies), Arnold Schwarzenegger (the Terminator pictures), Sylvester Stallone (Cliffhanger, Demolition Man) never can be.

Tim Robbins’s Dead Man Walking featured prominently in the 1995 Oscar contest, with a Best Director nomination, and the Best Actress Oscar to Susan Sarandon. In 1996, four of the five Best Picture nominees were indies, financed and made outside the Hollywood studio system: The English Patient, Fargo, Secrets & Lies, and Shine.

The Oscar nominations and awards for the indies would seem to express the disgust of the Hollywood Establishment for its own bloated and empty product. Indeed, while Hollywood was spending time, energy, and big bucks churning out and marketing bigbudget, overproduced, specialeffects and star’studded formulas (Independence Day, Volcano, Speed 2, Batman and Robin), something significant was happening out on the fringe, OffOff Hollywood: The American indie cinema was enjoying exhilarating years with young, bold filmmakers, critical support, receptive audiences, and the promise of an even better future.

The emergence of a viable alternative cinema, Off Hollywood industry (to borrow the expression from the theater world and its Broadway and Off Broadway divisions), with its own institutional structure and talent, is one of the most exciting developments in American culture of the last two decades.

The Oscars have reflected this evolution, with many of the decade’s winners of the Original Screenplay given to indies: Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game in 1992, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction in 1994, Christopher McQuarrie for The Usual Suspects (directed by Bryan Singer) in 1995, Billy Bob Thornton’s Sling Blade in 1996. Paul Thomas Anderson, the new genius on the block, has received two writing nominations, for Boogie Nights in 1997 and for Magnolia in 1999, both of which were made by New Line. In 2000, Stephen Gaghan won the Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Traffic, made by the indie company, U.S.A.

One studio that began truly independent and is now considered to be a minimajor has dominated the Oscar contest in the 1990s: Miramax, owned by Disney since 1993. As run by its copresidents, Harvey and Bob Weinstein, Miramax has been the most influential studio in town for a whole decade. In every year since 1992, Miramax has been represented in the Best Picture category with such innovative, envelopepushing movies as The Crying Game. Since then, The Piano was nominated in 1993, Pulp Fiction in 1994, Il Postino (The Postman) in 1995, The English Patient in 1996, Good Will Hunting in 1997, Life Is Beautiful and Shakespeare in Love in 1998, and The Cider House Rules in 1999.

The weakest Miramax contender in the Best picture category was Chocolat in 2000 (one of the least deserving in Oscar’s annals), though in 2001, Miramax was represented in the Best Picture race with one of the year’s strongest film, In the Bedroom, a highlight of indies and American cinema in general. In the Bedroom marked Miramax’s tenth consecutive year with a Best Picture nominee, a record unmatched by any other studio in town.

In 1998, Miramax outdid itself with two Best Picture nominees, Shakespeare in Love and Life Is Beautiful, which together garnered twenty nominations, winning ten: seven for Shakespeare in Love, including Best Picture and Best Actress to Gwyneth Paltrow, and three for Life Is Beautiful, including Best Actor to Roberto Benigni. Miramax won the Best Screenplay in six of the past nine years: The Crying Game, The Piano, Pulp Fiction, Sling Blade, Good Will Hunting, Shakespeare in Love, and The Cider House Rules.