Is This the Year of the Studio “Oscar Movie”?

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As a general rule, we try to steer clear of “Oscar blogging” this far ahead of the game — it’s a subset of online film writing that too often amounts to announcing that any fall release that generates a fair amount of early-screening praise is suddenly an awards contender that is totally, unexpectedly changing the game. It’s become a pretty silly ritual that we all go through every fall, particularly as more moviegoers and writers come to realize that the Oscars are an essentially meaningless horserace that seldom if ever genuinely reflects what is actually the best of the current cinema.

But gauging trends among the fall prestige pictures — the best foot that Hollywood puts forward every year — can be valuable; it gives us an opportunity to read the tea leaves a bit, to see what studios are hoping to accomplish, and what they would at least like our perception of them to be. And that’s maybe why this year’s Oscar pre-nomination race has become so interesting: because it’s so dominated by big studio releases.

To be sure, that’s the historical norm. But in the mid-‘90s, indie outfits like October, Fine Line, Polygram, and USA Films (alas, all of them now out of business or swallowed up) began nabbing Best Picture nominations — led by Miramax, the indie distributor-turned-studio whose gregarious head Harvey Weinstein soon became as notorious for his Oscar wooing (some would say purchasing) skills as he had been for his ruthless editing instincts. (Burned filmmakers nicknamed him “Harvey Scissorhands,” but that’s another story.) It got so bad for the studios that by 1996, only one of the year’s five Best Picture nominees, TriStar’s Jerry Maguire, was released by a major studio.

The balance eventually evened out, with each year’s slate of Best Picture nominees a fairly even mix of indie and studio releases. But over the last ten years, only two of the Best Picture winners have been major studio pictures (three if you count New Line as a major, which is a tough call). The rest have come from smaller distributors or specialty divisions — Lionsgate (Crash), Summit (The Hurt Locker), Miramax/Paramount Vantage (No Country for Old Men), Fox Searchlight (Slumdog Millionaire), and Miramax’s successor, The Weinstein Company (The King’s Speech, The Artist).

But the movies getting most of this year’s precious “Oscar buzz” are coming from the majors. Kathryn Bigelow’s extraordinary Zero Dark Thirty nabbed the New York Film Critics Circle’s Best Picture and Best Director honors earlier this week; it currently holds a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and it looks like Bigelow could very well repeat her Hurt Locker triumph come February. The NYFCC also gave three awards to Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s much-loved political drama, a film ambitious, paradoxically enough, in its intimacy. That film is released by DreamWorks.

The other object of considerable chatter of the past week or so has been Universal’s adaptation of the stage musical Les Miserables, which is getting a splashy Christmas day release and a major Oscar push. (Uni’s other December release is This is 40, a film that will probably be seen as too scattershot for serious award consideration, but one that shows the studio giving rather surprising leeway to the kind of intensely personal marital comedy/drama that we haven’t seen since the glory days of Woody Allen and John Cassavetes.) Most predictors are anticipating a Best Picture nod as well for Ben Affleck’s Argo , a crowd-pleasing ensemble drama from Warner Brothers; Ang Lee’s Life of Pi also looks like a strong possibility for Fox. The Weinstein Company, which distributed the past two Best Picture winners, are finding their presumed awards favorites The Master and Killing Them Softly to be too divisive among critics and audiences; their best hope for statues this year appears to be Silver Linings Playbook, a film so audience-friendly that it might as well come from a major.

And there we are, predicting the Oscar race; you see how easy it is to get sucked in? The point is — and this is something we’ll return to in the next three weeks — 2012 was an extraordinarily good year for film, one for the books. And more than usual, this wasn’t a divided arrangement, with studios only churning out 3D summer sequels and leaving the quality stuff to the minors. Don’t get us wrong; they turned out plenty of that pap. But it seems that they’re approaching their fall movies with equal vigor, and hopefully discovering that the ghettoization of high quality isn’t just bad form — it’s bad business.