Can Creativity Survive Hollywood's Money Quest?

LIFE is like a box of chocolates.''

The nougat-chewy homily of Forrest Gump will no doubt be sampled more than once on tonight's Oscarcast 1995. The tale of a lovable nitwit's historical and humorous encounters has garnered more than $315 million in tickets and 13 Oscar nominations for Paramount Communications, its distributor.

As America's dream factory settles in for its annual celebri-thon of backslapping and retrospection, some are touting the Gump's keep'em-guessing philosophy as the winning formula behind Hollywood's $5.4 billion box office year -- the highest in history. ''You have five totally different films nominated for Best Picture by an Academy that is supposed to be monolithic,'' says Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America.

Noting that a record 11 films pulled in more than $100 million this year, Valenti adds: ''The choices are many and wide ... all is right in movie heaven.''

Not so fast, others say. Trying to read between the canned banter of tonight's award presenters, a different set of armchair analysts will be asking one main question: Beyond the bottom line, how healthy is Hollywood creativity?

One key set of answers may come by looking at the shove being given to the movie industry this year -- after decades of nudging -- by independent filmmakers.

More than in recent years, America's cinematic confectionery has been sweetened by the critically appraised offerings of smaller independent firms or those creatively autonomous divisions of larger studios. Expanding significantly on the trend highlighted with 1993's ''Crying Game,'' four of five Best Picture nominees this year -- ''Quiz Show'' (Buena Vista Pictures Distribution), ''The Shawshank Redemption'' (Castlerock Entertainment), ''Pulp Fiction'' (Miramax Films), and ''Four Weddings and a Funeral'' (Grammercy Pictures) -- are products of such companies.

''These films are breaking barriers that previously were unheard of,'' says Bob Laemmle, owner of 22 screens that cater to fine arts and specialty films. ''All of a sudden they are getting mainstream audience recognition.''

Which awards these films win and how such recognition turns into box-office income will help answer a question that has gnawed at Hollywood for years: Do box-office success and creative diversity conflict?

Despite the promising crop of 1994, a growing chorus of voices both in and outside the industry says, yes.

''We are seeing alarms go off in every direction that such diversity and range may be only temporary,'' says Richard Herskowitz, director of programming for the Virginia Festival of American Film.

Figures released this month by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), for instance, depict a sobering drift: The average, big-studio feature film of 1994 cost $34 million to make and averaged another $16 million in print and advertising promotion.

Making that kind of money back puts extraordinary pressure on those in decisionmaking roles to reach the greatest number of people and tap into lucrative overseas markets. That, in turn, too often means ignoring the experimental films that might target smaller audiences in favor of those that appeal to the lowest common denominators: sex, violence, and techno-thrillers.

''How many Malaysians want to spend two hours with a family of 19th century New England transcendentalists?'' asks a screenwriter of this year's ''Little Women.''

Creative merit aside, some box-office figures for this year's Best Picture nominees may support the sobering picture. ''Quiz Show,'' the film by Robert Redford that wowed critics for artistic merit, was faulted for aiming at too narrow an audience -- those over 40. Its penalty: pulling in only $24.2 million in receipts.

''Studios still feel most comfortable with a big, high-concept, familiar genre with a bankable star and a director who has delivered a big seller once before'' says Harold Ramis, co-writer of 10 films including ''Ghostbusters.'' ''That's why [megaflops] like 'Last Action Hero,' get made.''

While it is true that studio megahits help provide the seed money for smaller, less sure-thing projects -- those costing less than $10 million -- the creative projects that may cost more than that, say $10 million to $25 million, are more in jeopardy.

''The thing that scares studios the most is those in the low-to-medium range,'' Ramis says.

Observers like Herskowitz are hopeful that the recognition of independent films will help chip away at Hollywood's formula blockbuster mentality. But they worry about such developments as the recent cutbacks by the National Endowment for the Arts on grants to independent film and video projects.

''The impact of these cuts could affect the emergence of the [''Pulp Fiction'' director] Quentin Tarantinos of tomorrow,'' Herskowitz says.

But some academy members say this year proves that great ideas can conquer the odds. The latest cases in point: ''Four Weddings'' cost just $5.5 million to make; ''Pulp Fiction,'' $9.5 million; and ''Hoop Dreams,'' $300,000.

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