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Low-budget films to rule Oscars

Pundits are hailing edgy movies that are made cheaply as a sure-fire ticket to riches.

india Updated: Feb 28, 2006 21:19 IST

Contrary to the usual expensive and lavish productions, the Oscars ceremony this year is expected to be dominated by a string of low-budget dramatic films.

Of the top contenders for the Oscar glory, only Munich and Memoirs of a Geisha can be considered traditional studio products - a sign of Hollywood's mould-breaking trend this year.

Munich is perhaps Steven Spielberg's most independent-minded film ever, filmed on a tight budget with a tough narrative and few special effects. Geisha, meanwhile, garnered its nominations in relatively minor categories.

That leaves the Oscar gala in Hollywood Feb 5 open for a roster of films that challenges the mainstream comfort zone more than any other selection in recent years.

The powerful gay cowboy story and Oscar frontrunner Brokeback Mountain, racial drama Crash and political period piece Good Night, and Good Luck - all of them indicate a thumb down to Hollywood's most expensive and lavish productions like King Kong, War of the Worlds and The Chronicles of Narnia.

No wonder Hollywood wags are joking they might move the next Oscar ceremony to the Sundance Film Festival - especially since that independent film showcase is fast moving towards the mainstream.

But it's no surprise that Hollywood's artistic community plumbs for the movies that are seen as the best expression of their art.

With low-budget dramatic films dominating the Oscars this season, pundits are hailing edgy movies that are made cheaply as a sure-fire ticket to riches. While that may be true for the select few that get Oscar nominations and statues, research institute Kagan Research finds such independent- calibre dramas generally are a poor economic bet.

"Hollywood talent often makes these films because of a passion for the material," says Wade Holden, analyst with Kagan Research. "But the entire low-budget drama category doesn't have a good track record from an economic perspective."

The figures bear it out. Of all the movies at the forefront of this year's Oscars, only Brokeback Mountain has a chance of breaking the $100 million mark at the US box office, a figure seen as the minimum requirement for a hit movie.

Last year's winner Million Dollar Baby just squeaked past the $100 million mark and you have to go back to the success of Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King to find that rare instance where popular taste coincided with that of the movie industry insiders.

This divide between the tastes of mainstream audiences and Hollywood is reflected in the themes of the movies chosen for Oscar consideration.

Brokeback Mountain has the message that same-sex relationships occur in all walks of life with a love that is as powerful as a heterosexual couple's.

Crash addresses the real-world ambiguity of race and tolerance. Capote examines the literary genius of a man most Americans have likely never heard of. Good Night, And Good Luck delves into the relationship between the press and politics, and Munich asks searching questions about the human price exacted by an unrelenting war on terror - not exactly easy-viewing entertainment topics.

So is Hollywood's power as an arbiter of cultural tastes on the wane? With box office receipts falling by some six percent last year, that might seem to be the case. But much of that shortfall could well be accounted for by the huge rise in DVD rentals as viewers choose their home movie theatres over the local multiplex.

Yet in the Internet age, Hollywood's celebrity culture has never been more popular around the world. With 84 countries broadcasting the show to over one billion people, the ultimate Hollywood competition remains a source of endless fascination.

First Published: Feb 28, 2006 21:19 IST