Sunday, February 26, 2012

Oscar Saves The Day For Grown-Up Movies

(By Ann Hornaday, Washington Post, February 24, 2012)

Wanna know a secret? I’ve never cared much about the Oscars.  When I began writing about movies for a living, covering the Academy Awards and its attendant hoopla was always the least interesting part of my job — as I once joked to an editor, I wrote all year for free, but got paid to watch the Oscars. Like so many cine-snooty movie snobs, I dismissed them as celebrations of the hopelessly middlebrow (“Forrest Gump” over “Pulp Fiction”? Really?), a hypocritical exercise in self-congratulation and Hollywood’s longest, slickest advertisement for itself.

Okay, I still think those things are true. And, along with other complainers this year, I agree that the 2012 race is pretty ho-hum. The jaunty silent, black-and-white movie “The Artist” is all but guaranteed to soft-shoe its way to snagging the big awards. Most of its fellow nominees are movies mired in safe, snuggly nostalgia for times gone by, both cinematic and real-world.  But seen through another lens, this year’s race offers a degree of hope, not just for the Academy Awards but for the movie industry in general. And the best of the nominated films exemplify why, in recent years, I’ve come to value the Oscars — not for rewarding artistic merit (they do so only occasionally) or an index of the zeitgeist (“Crash” over “Brokeback Mountain”? Really?), but for their role in preserving a kind of movie that might otherwise cease to exist.

Of all the endangered species in Hollywood, perhaps the most overlooked might be the adult drama — the kind of mid-budget, modestly scaled, smartly written movie that seemed to be so common in the 1970s. Back then, the genre was typified by taut, no-nonsense films like “Chinatown” and “All the President’s Men.” Their present-day analogs are “Michael Clayton” or “The Social Network” — smart, stylish movies geared toward grown-ups that, were it not for the Oscars, would be less likely to find purchase in Hollywood’s current business model.

That model, more than ever, is defined by two kinds of movies. At one end are the “tent-pole movies,” blockbusters geared toward teens that cost a fortune to make and market, but are guaranteed to make their money back because they’re known quantities among the young audiences Hollywood caters to like the world’s most indulgent helicopter parent.  At the other end of the economic matrix live the micro-budgeted guerilla indies, which cost a nickel to make, get scooped up at a festival and go on to make a healthy if not spectacular profit, if only because they cost so little to produce and market.

In the middle of these two extremes are movies that cost much more than a nickel to make, but have no pre-sold niche markets to exploit. What’s more, nowadays they’re increasingly competing for audiences with, of all things, television: Not only does the adult drama’s core audience prefer to wait for the DVD or video-on-demand download, but they have better choices on TV itself. Why put up with parking-garage chicken fights, bad expensive popcorn and texting teenagers at the mall when you can watch your TiVo’ed episode of “The Good Wife” from the quiet safety of your couch?

All of these factors have contributed to making quality, sophisticated grown-up movies a risky proposition in Hollywood, where it can cost almost $100 million these days to create, advertise and promote a piece of product. And this is where the Oscars — with all their hype, sequins and bad production numbers — swoop in to improbably save the day.  “Awards season has become an in­cred­ibly critical, essential element in marketing these films,” Variety Executive Editor Steven Gaydos told me last week, adding that, with films no longer afforded the luxury of staying in theaters for weeks on end to build word-of-mouth, the Oscars have become “the world’s most cost-effective way of marketing drama.”

That strategy begins in the fall, when many studios launch their films at festivals in Telluride, Venice and Toronto. There, critics and bloggers begin the buzz about which directors, actors and films might be awards contenders, with word-of-mouth building once they begin to bestow their own honors and 10-best lists. As the movies begin to appear in theaters, filmmaking guilds begin to hand out their own kudos, lending yet more inevitability to movies deemed Oscar sure-things. Between the Golden Globes and the announcement of Oscar nominees in January, what began as a little-movies-that-could suddenly seem to be everywhere, as people make a mental note to see what all the fuss is about.

Studios pay dearly to help the buzz along, of course, and the escalating arms race of Oscar campaigning has led some industry insiders to call for a freeze. Citing Sony’s Oscar push for “The Social Network” — which cost a reported $7 million to $10 million — former agent and manager Gavin Polone recently complained that “the cost of two Oscar campaigns could comfortably fund the total production budget for a movie like ‘Drive’ or ‘Midnight in Paris.’ ” Magnolia Pictures President Eamonn Bowles agreed, adding that the awards-season strategy is largely based on myth. “There are, of course, instances where winning the Academy Award unlocks a film’s economic potential,” he said. “But the reality is that the vast majority never recoup or come close to recouping the amounts spent on trying to win the award.”  Still, some films have recouped with a vengeance: Last year, “The King’s Speech,” which cost a paltry $15 million to make, went on to earn just south of $400 million at the box office; “Slumdog Millionaire” enjoyed a similar Oscar “bump,” going on to earn more than $300 million worldwide.

With visions of such Oscar-season Cinderellas dancing in their heads, studio executives might be more willing to greenlight projects that otherwise wouldn’t fit neatly into their spreadsheets. And even if they don’t reap the regal financial rewards on a par with “The King’s Speech,” they acquire something more priceless: prestige. When “The Descendants” and its star George Clooney won at the Golden Globes in January, “the first person to shake Clooney’s hand was Rupert Murdoch,” says Hollywood Reporter Oscar columnist Scott Feinberg, referring to the chairman of the media conglomerate that owns the small studio that released the movie.  Awards, Feinberg says, “appeal to the egos of the studio chiefs and the studio executives. . . . In some ways it wipes the stain off what they do the rest of the year.”

No one has proved savvier at husbanding the Oscar’s marketing and reputation-burnishing resources than Harvey Weinstein, who perfected his strategy by steering “Shakespeare in Love” to best picture victory in 1999 (beating out “Saving Private Ryan,” no less.) It was Weinstein who figured out how to make a movie about a stuttering king with no big stars a must-see cultural event, and who cannily picked up “The Artist” at Cannes last year, predicting that a pastiche of Hollywood tropes about an actor feeling pinched between changing technology and a tough economy would be catnip to the academy’s voting members — most of whom are actors feeling pinched between changing technology and a tough economy.

It looks like Weinstein’s calculation will pay off again this year. But where “The Artist” qualifies as something of a high-end novelty film, at least three other nominees — “The Descendants,” “Moneyball” and “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” — exemplify precisely the kind of intelligent, mid-range movies that stand to benefit from Oscar-season awareness. That synergy worked particularly well last year, when “The King’s Speech” was nominated alongside “The Social Network,” “Black Swan,” “The Fighter” and “True Grit.”

All of those movies were made for modest budgets and all were modestly to stunningly profitable, thanks in large part to the added visibility provided by their Oscar campaigns. Surely the movies would have been made even if the Oscars didn’t exist. But they would not have been as successful, making it less likely that studios would greenlight similar projects down the road. “They’re critic-driven and execution-dependent,” Gaydos says of the adult drama niche. “And they’re the most risky films to finance today. Anything that makes them less risky or more viable — such as [an awards season] when they can be celebrated and marketed for a very reasonable amount of money — is good.”  As if to prove that point, Weinstein announced last week that he’s planted yet another seedling: Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts will begin filming “August: Osage County” — an adaptation of Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play — this fall.  Which positions it perfectly for an Oscar run in 2014.

Why Every Woman Should Celebrate Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit Issue

I don't dare comment on this article because it would be a no-win situation no matter what I said but I think it is an interesting point of view being made here.

(Keli Goff,, February 21, 2012)

Can swimsuit models actually help girls develop healthier body images?   Each year, shortly after we have made and already begun to break our New Year's resolutions, Americans become captivated by sports' most competitive contest. No I am not referring to the Super Bowl, but the contest for who will grace the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.   Landing the cover is supposed to be the equivalent of winning the Super Bowl of the modeling world (or something like that), credited with launching, or at least elevating, the careers of some of modeling's most famous and enduring names, among them Christie Brinkley and Tyra Banks. While it's arguable that it elicits very different reactions from men and women, with the New York Times describing it as "the dream book of adolescent males and the bane of feminists," I'm one feminist who believes that there's a lot for women to celebrate about the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.

This year's cover girl is Kate Upton, who before receiving the honor was best known for appearing on youtube doing the "Dougie." (If you are scratching your head asking, "What's the Dougie?" click here.) Now she's known as the next big thing. And I do mean big. Upton is not your typical model. Though her official weight is hard to pin down, there have been endless references to her "curves" which, let's face it, usually means cup size when referring to models, actresses and whatever it is that Kim Kardashian allegedly does for a living. But not in Upton's case. As one friend said refreshingly of Upton 'She's not your typical model... She will eat anything." Lengthy profiles in outlets like the Times and the Daily Mail have chronicled her management team's, seemingly uphill battle to establish her and her ample assets, in modeling's incredibly shrinking world, where a size 4 makes you chubby and a size 10 makes you borderline plus size.

Some of the vitriol aimed at Upton -- much of it by women no less -- reinforces the notion that even in the non-high fashion world of swimsuit and lingerie modeling, there is little tolerance for bodies that dare to look -- gasp! -- healthy and not borderline skeletal. Speaking of Upton, who has already drawn comparisons to legendary curvy (all over) beauties like Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, Sophia Neophitou, who helps cast the Victoria's Secret runway show said "We would never use" someone like Upton, describing her looks as comparable to those of the half-naked "glamour" models popular in European tabloids.  Underneath photos of Upton at her model heaviest -- which was still thinner than most of us -- anonymous commenters referred to her as a "cow." (No, I'm not joking.) Her own agent at A-list firm IMG has said that colleagues were initially against signing her, owing to her non-traditional look.

Upton's triumph comes at an interesting time in the fashion world. Katie Halchishick, a former plus-size model, recently launched Natural Model Management. The agency specializes in models who are not plus-size or underweight but a healthy 6 to size 10. Halchishick was inspired after her own successful career as a plus-size model came to a screeching halt when she began dating a personal trainer and lost fifty pounds, and subsequently ended up losing most of her clients. Down to a healthy size 6 she found there were virtually zero opportunities for a model who was above a size 2 but below a size 14, a sentiment echoed by one of the few plus-size supermodels Crystal Renn.   Or should I say former plus-size supermodel? Renn, one of the few plus-size models to find mainstream success in high fashion magazines and with top designers, has struggled with the industry's mercurial weight specifications for years. She has openly discussed battling an eating disorder earlier in her career, but recently landed the ultimate validation that at her current weight, which is not stick-thin, but healthy, she looks absolutely fabulous. She appears alongside Kate Upton in the current issue of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. Of the honor, Renn said, "I have been a double-zero to a 16 even, for a bit.... Now to settle at a [size] six or an eight, it's a really interesting place to be because there are very few sixes or eights." Her statement echoes those of one of the most famous supermodels ever. Cindy Crawford has expressed doubts that she, and some of her peers from the heyday of the "supermodel" in the 90's would have made it today, because most of them were a size 6.

And that's why I, speaking as a woman and a feminist, am actually a big fan of Sports Illustrated including its swimsuit issue. While the rest of the modeling world has increasingly celebrated body types that look like a 16-year-old girl's head placed on top of a 13-year-old boy's body, Sports Illustrated has continuously celebrated healthy female bodies. Before the eye-rolling begins, yes, I know that many of those bodies have had a lot more in common with Pamela Anderson than, say, Serena Williams, but Sports Illustrated has also featured a number of beautiful, healthy-looking female athletes in the swimsuit issue, along with a number of male athletes and their beautiful, healthy-looking wives. Some of my favorite photos over the years have featured these women, who don't look like supermodels, but do look beautiful, healthy, happy and like real people. Not some ridiculous, undernourished, overly airbrushed myth of what real people are supposed to look like.  

Based on responses from teen girls regarding questions about their body image, it's arguable the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue could end up having the positive impact on young girls that the Dove real women campaign tried, but some in the industry, believe failed to. The responses illustrate that while teen girls consider most models underweight, they consider themselves overweight. Yet they would still rather look like the images they see in popular culture because while models may be underweight, they also seem glamorous, or at least their lives do. The Dove Real Women campaign exuded a lot of things -- confidence among them -- but glamour it did not.  So maybe, just maybe, seeing real women looking, happy, healthy and glamorous, bikini and all, may send a message to some girls and women that you don't have to be underweight and unhealthy to live a great, or in the words of Sheila E., "Glamorous Life."