Oscar nominations are out and there are both surprises and notable trends. Moviegoers are rewarding films that provide a respite from the turbulent world outside the theater. And women seem to be at the forefront of the charge.
Unexpected nods for dark horse “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” about a son’s search for meaning in his father’s death, include both a supporting actor and best film nomination. Also a surprise, Terence Malick’s polarizing, “Tree of Life,” made it onto the list for best film.
Other best-film candidates include “The Artist,” “The Help,” “Hugo,” and "The Descendants.” These films all reflect a turn to nastalgia and familiy – what one pundit calls “'The Blind Side' effect."
The hopefuls, which also include “Moneyball,” "Midnight in Paris,” and “War Horse,” contain little violence, explicit sexuality, or offensive language. In short, at least during the final few months of the year, moviegoers enjoyed a wavelet of prestigious, feel-good films.
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“There is a glacial shift towards films about family relationships with women taking the lead,” says Yahoo! film critic Thelma Adams, who tracks the trend back to the film, “The Blind Side,” which gave star Sandra Bullock an Oscar in 2010.
“That was the year the industry got blindsided,” she says. It happened again this year with “The Help,” a small, independent that overtook “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” to rule the fall box office for three weeks in a row. "There is this extremely slow awakening to the fact that women rule the pocketbooks,” she says.
“More and more women are going to the movies in blocks,” Ms. Adams says. “They go with girlfriends, daughters and mothers ... and these women recommend their favorite films to other women and they will go see the same movie over and over again.”
Women want to see their lives as they live them, in films like “The Help,” or “Hugo,” says humorist Carole Townsend, who writes about pop culture and family. “[These films] remind us of what matters,” she adds.
Nostalgia-laden efforts such as “The Artist,” and “Hugo,” mirror predictable cycles both in the industry and a society looking for a haven in troubled times, says Chris Auer, chair of the film and television department at Savannah College of Art and Design. “These filmmakers are all getting older and are dealing with more family-related issues themselves,” he says, pointing to Martin Scorsese, whose wife reportedly asked him to make a film that his own children could go see. That film, of course, turned out to be "Hugo."
Beyond that, Mr. Auer says, “R-rated films do not perform as well as family films at the box office.”
The gentler tone reflects what he calls a circling of the wagon during anxious times. “The world outside is difficult and confusing,” he says. Films that reassure and reaffirm foundational values such as family appeal during these times, he says.
This trend also reflects an industry struggling to combat audience erosion, says Christopher Sharrett, professor of film studies at Seton Hall University. Moviegoing in 2011 was down 5 percent from the previous year according to Variety.
“Feel-good films seem the order of the day,” Professor Sharrett says. Darker films such as “Take Shelter,” “We Need to Talk about Kevin,” and “Melancholia” had limited circulation – standard for more "challenging" fare. “There is a concern about filling seats as multiplexes seem moribund, and the life-affirming film is the way to go.”
The rush of Oscar contenders this year nearly all originated with independent producers, another growing strategy in the film industry. Big studios increasingly like to wait for buzz to develop around a finished product, rather than take a chance on a lone idea.
Without independent producers, films such as “The Artist” would never find wide distribution, says Brian Balthazar, editor at POPgoesTheWeek.com. “It’s hard to even imagine someone pitching a black-and-white silent film to a studio executive hoping to compete with Harry Potter or Avatar,” he says with a laugh. “These studios want to come in and pick up small movies that someone else has already taken the initial risk on.”