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PAUL SOLMAN: The Y2K Oscars have come to an end, and the winners are dark and quirky films like “American Beauty,” a send-up of suburban malaise; “Boys Don’t Cry,” a $2 million independent about a girl who may be a boy, and “The Matrix,” a cerebral sci-fi thriller. So, is Hollywood changing, taking more chances? For some answers, we turn to Kenneth Turan, movie critic for the “LA Times,” and Toby Miller, a professor of cinema studies at New York University, currently working on a book, “Global Hollywood.” Gentlemen, welcome to you both. Ken Turan, does “American Beauty” tell us anything about whether Hollywood’s tastes are changing?
KENNETH TURAN, Los Angeles Times: It does say that it’s changing somewhat but I think it’s changing in a way that reflects the way America is changing. I think one of the reasons that the industry embraces as the five Oscars indicate is that America really took to this film. This film is very unusual for a film this dark has already earned over $100 million at the box office. And it has seemed to have touched a cord in America and Hollywood loves to respond to those chords. They hear those chords, they hear money, that’s where they’re going.
PAUL SOLMAN: This was expected? I mean it’s expected from the beginning that they knew they had a winner on their hands here?
KENNETH TURAN: No. In fact, quite the contrary. I think no one is more surprised at this film’s success than the people who made it and the studio that distributed it. It could have gone either way. Everyone knew it could have gone either way. Everyone thought it was a very strong film but would people embrace it? It was anyone’s guess. It turned out they did but no one foresaw this to this extent. No one.
PAUL SOLMAN: Toby Miller, dark, quirky and last night the screen writer used the word, cinematographer used the word dysfunctional. Is that what Hollywood sees as the American mood these days?
TOBY MILLER, New York University: Well, remember that Hollywood, even when things like comedies and action adventures are the most popular films of the year with the box office doesn’t normally select those genres for big awards. There is a tendency to go towards the message film or the film with a strong story. We’ve seen that in the last few years repeatedly. So, I think it’s partly about a sense that there is a theme in the country about middle-aged men in their 40s and 50s and having a little difficulty adjusting to the aging process.
PAUL SOLMAN: Be careful here.
TOBY MILLER: But there’s also a sense that what we have to deal with here is Hollywood itself is not just America making money but also a cultural industry and an art form with something to say.
PAUL SOLMAN: So is there change? I mean do you see change? Boys don’t cry, for example, the recipient of the award last night made much of the fact that three-and-a-half years ago I think she said this film couldn’t have been made.
KENNETH TURAN: Well I think that’s absolutely true. I think that is definitely something. It’s unimaginable that a film like this, a film with subject matter that Hollywood spent years trying to disguise trying to make believe didn’t even exist, that this film could get a Best Actress Oscar. This really is unprecedented. And, you know, Hollywood always takes one step or two steps forward one step back or vice versa. It’s not a progression that’s a straight line. But I think you have to see that something is going on.
PAUL SOLMAN: Toby Miller, do you agree?
TOBY MILLER: I absolutely agree. I think also that it’s got little to do with the tragic death of Matthew Sheppard in Wyoming — for people who were not necessarily involved in civil rights issues, there’s something about Chaum’s gender, sexual identity and different kinds of sexual identity that is actually part of the fabric of American life and that needs to be addressed, needs to be embraced and the various forms of bigotry against it have to be exposed. So I think that there’s a change of climate that is very important. But I also think that this is an era when the conventional big budget movie is in some peril because of all kinds of technological changes with the Web and so on, distributional changes, conglomerate changes. The political economy of Hollywood is changing. And so in some ways there’s a tendency to look towards the edgy , story driven, narratively strong picture as opposed to the big budget special effects picture.
PAUL SOLMAN: What do you mean by that? I mean, how does the Web threaten Hollywood? How does the Internet threaten Hollywood?
TOBY MILLER: For example, as I’m sure you’re all aware, the vast majority of Hollywood pictures don’t make money or if they do it’s through a series of the windows like the video window or the DVD window or through sales overseas.
PAUL SOLMAN: Window, you mean, opportunities?
TOBY MILLER: Yes. Opportunities for screening. It’s not just hard top exhibition, if you like, going to the multiplex that brings in the money. That can take a long time for return on investment. And for a long time Hollywood has relied on a series of ancillary culture industries, like for example, the music industry, to make its money. Now the music industry, which has produced a great deal of financial support for Hollywood production, is now itself very concerned about so-called piracy because of college kids and others using MP-3 on their computers to download and copy music in digitally perfect form that they can use elsewhere. So, the music industry is worried. The television industry is worried. Nobody really knows quite how distribution and technology are going to change things. It’s possible with digital cameras to make very cheaply, very beautiful looking films that are the equal of a 35-millimeter picture that only in the past the big Hollywood studios have produced. So that means if you’re in Hollywood, you need to worry about where the money is coming from. You need to think about investing not just in the conventional blockbuster picture but the edgy picture from the outside.
PAUL SOLMAN: Ken Turant, do you agree with that? Do you see this threat as Hollywood sort of running scared of things like the “Blair Witch Project” made on whatever it was, high 8 or something?
KENNETH TURAN: Hollywood is always running scared. That’s what they do best. They’re always nervous; they always have a sense that they don’t have a sense of entitlement, that they don’t know where the next dollar is coming from. I think what they have seen – and this is something that has gone back 10 or 15 years — maybe as far back as Pulp Fiction, they have seen that these independent films, what they had foreseen in previous years as really odd films, that really there was a large audience for them, that people are more adventurous than they think they are. If you do make these things well, people will come. And I think whenever they see that, they want to capitalize on it, they want to duplicate it, they want to make more money on it, I think that’s what they’ve always tried to do and they’ll keep trying to do that.
PAUL SOLMAN: So they’re going to copy now off-beat films?
KENNETH TURAN: Exactly.
PAUL SOLMAN: How do you do that? How do you copy off beat films – by their very nature they’re off beat, right?
KENNETH TURAN: Well, sometimes you make enough copies that fail and everyone shakes their heads. What sometimes happens is they just let another off-beat film get made. A true off-beat film comes to their attention and they say, well, we’ll take a chance on this one. The ones they copy – you’re right – those are failures – and there will be some of those. But sometimes, you know, films like “Being John Malkovich,” which is as off beat a film as has ever gotten an Oscar nomination, will come along and will get made, we’ll be the richer for it.
PAUL SOLMAN: Is there going to be this sort of effervescence? Is there already this growth in the independent film of the sort like “Boys Don’t Cry,” the $2 million independent? I mean, is that where it’s going? Is that where the industry is going and Hollywood is trying to capture that, Toby Miller?
TOBY MILLER: The word “independent” is a difficult one to use. A few years ago we were all saying this is the era of the independent studio, as it were, because of the success of Miramax. Well, quite quickly, Miramax saw the coin of Disney approaching. On the other hand, we now have a big genuinely new studio in Dream Works, which produced “American Beauty,” with Spielberg and others at the helm, and it clearly is not just going after the conventional studio fare. It is, in a sense, rather like one of the old mini-majors from the classical Hollywood era of the 40′s. It’s not a big studio; it’s not quite an independent. But I think it’s still going to be the case that Hollywood, because of its skill and distribution, particularly internationally, is going to be not necessarily an honest broker between our audience and our independent film makers so there will never be a direct relationship between the edgy independents and the film-going community. Hollywood will always be able to muscle in and say we distribute, we promote. That’s our job.
PAUL SOLMAN: So marketing then remains key even in a world where independent films can be easily made?
KENNETH TURAN: Absolutely. You know, the whole thing about the “Blair Witch Project” that is sometimes forgotten is that this is really not a very good film by anyone’s standards that was marketed brilliantly. And I think the marketing and how the distributors of Blair Witch used the Internet, this is the lesson Hollywood is trying to learn. They’re not necessarily trying to duplicate that film; they’re trying to duplicate how it was sold because how it was sold was a stroke of genius.
PAUL SOLMAN: And it was also made extremely cheaply.
KENNETH TURAN: Yes, which doesn’t hurt.
PAUL SOLMAN: One last question. No surprises last night? Ken Turan, I read your piece in yesterday’s LA Times, you had every one of the winners picked except I think “Foreign Film.”
KENNETH TURAN: Yeah. I took a flyer on “Foreign Film,” and I lost. But, no, it was the most predictable Oscars in many, many years. It’s partly because these have become so studied it’s not one of the great mysteries of modern civilization. If you study the Academy long enough, you can more or less predict what they’re going to do. And last night they ran true to form.
PAUL SOLMAN: Right. And the Wall Street Journal even did exit polls. Well, thank you very much, gentlemen both very much, we appreciate it.