Traditionally a time for Hollywood to put its best foot forward, this year’s Golden Globes have even more cause to celebrate. With 2011’s clutch of nominated films representing some of the most exciting work to emerge for a generation, it can be argued that in terms of sheer creativity, the industry has never been in better shape.
The trend for gritty drama spearheaded by films such as Precious and The Hurt Locker in 2010 continues this year with a raft of nominees all based on real events. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg makes billions, but loses friends, in his bid to form the world’s biggest social networking site; Colin Firth provides a grand-standing turn as King George VI and director Danny Boyle tackles a virtually unimaginable dilemma faced by climber Aron Ralston, when he becomes trapped with no hope of rescue, unless he saves himself by cutting off his own arm.
What is becoming clear that these films are not only expected to do well during Awards Season, but they will also excel when it comes to box-office. Normally films like these could expect to be no more than satellite hits; rarely-seen before awards shows, with a nominal screening at cinemas if they win any of the big awards.
It was 2010 that saw a significant shift in the correlation between subject matter and box-office success. With challenging, Oscar-worthy films like The Blind Side doing well, their success points to a change, not with the movies themselves, but with us. The films haven’t got easier, we’re just prepared to work harder.
This turn of events isn’t hard to fathom: the last time audiences opted for drama with depth was through the 1930s and 1940s, an era beset by war, turmoil and economic depression. As well as the fizz and glamour of Busby Berkeley musicals, films such as Mildred Pierce won awards and audiences, proving that there was room (and the appetite) for both types of film.
We’re happy to take our cue from the 40s, and cinema’s no longer being looked at as just an escape from the daily grind; people are going to the cinema expecting to be moved and provoked. Where cinema fell short of these expectations, theatre more than happily picked up the slack. But with the recession, came a change in how people spent their spare time and income. Cinema is one of the few industries that have performed consistently during from the recession: it’s not hard to see why. A quick culture fix, heading to London for the latest must-see play can take considerable time and planning: going to your local cinema does not.
But the big change occurred when the audiences who regularly visited theatre came back to cinema, still armed with the same set of expectations. Not a group of consumers liable to be fobbed off with second-rate fare, this previously neglected group has been wooed in earnest by the film industry. Sure enough, passion projects have shone where films loaded with starry names haven’t performed to their usual standard. The big surprise for the film industry has been that this tactical change has been popular with cinema-goers across the board. Roland Barthes may not have been referencing modern cinema when he wrote about death of the narrative, but the film industry does seem keen on reviving it.
There’s no clearer sign of this than the success of popular Globes nominees such as Alice in Wonderland and Inception. The latter in particular would almost certainly have not been made 20 years ago -no studio would have green-lighted such a project no matter how many names were attached. Christopher Nolan’s surrealist vision made serious inroads at the multiplexes -a perfect example of the latest technology coming together with a boldly-imagined narrative to make a film that wowed audiences precisely because it used spectacle and story-telling in equal measure.
Cinema has certainly loved fantasy in the past, but in more traditional guises such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Original works, such as Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, are now enjoying the sort of fanfare usually reserved for summer-blockbusters. Aronofsky’s dark tale of madness and obsession takes us right down the rabbit-hole, but it’s being marketed as a must-see movie in exactly the same way a rom-com or an action flick would be. Its prolific presence is nothing short of a mini-revolution for Hollywood, because here is a film being promoted as a heavy-hitter before it’s even scooped any major awards. The PR machine has kicked in early, not so much in anticipation, but because they recognise the film will make solid financial returns on its own merits. This is a revelation, because neurosis en pointe isn’t exactly an easy sell, but the indications are that Black Swan will prove one of the year’s wild cards, and could well be the film that impresses in every category.
As the Globes ceremony airs on the 16th, prepare to see left-field and box-office favourites do battle not as indie versus blockbuster, but as equals. It’s a supremely exciting time for film, because cinema’s big ideas of action being purely visceral and costume drama deliberate and methodical, are slowly getting turned on their head. The return of narrative is forcing the film industry to be daring, take the road less travelled and the results speak for themselves. When film is as good as this, everyone wins.