Borders Line: Does Oscar Reward Smaller Budgets?

The bigger the budget, the smaller the chance at nabbing an Oscar?

The bigger the budget, the smaller the chance at nabbing an Oscar? Over the last ten years, other than a few outliers like Return of the King, The Departed, and Gladiator, the winners of Best Picture have all had low-to-average budgets, outshining far more expensive nominees in their category. Of the ten Best Picture nominees for this year’s Academy Awards, there are only two films with behemoth budgets, Inception with $160 million and Toy Story 3 with $200 million. The Social Network at $40 million and True Grit at $38 million both cost reasonably less than the average wide release film, and the remaining six nominees were downright affordable, from The Fighter‘s $25 million budget to Winter’s Bone‘s paltry $2 million price tag. Despite wide critical acclaim and box office success for both Inception and Toy Story 3,  these films are scarce to be seen as serious contenders on Oscars prediction lists. Neither film was nominated for Best Director or Best Editing, two key categories that often serve as indicators for the big winner. And it’s telling that since the recession began in December 2007, the combined budget for the last three recipients of the Best Picture award is $55 million—$10 million less than the standard budget for a single wide release film.

This year’s Golden Globes ceremony similarly commended prestige pictures, with The Kids Are All Right, The Fighter, Black Swan, The King’s Speech and The Social Network all taking home coveted awards. Toy Story 3 did receive the Best Animated Feature Film award, as it’s sure to do at this year’s Oscar ceremony, but despite at 99% being the highest-rated of all the Best Picture nominees on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s unlikely to score the big one. 

Why do I say that? Last year, many critics maintained that the Best Picture race was down to Avatar, at $237 million one of the most expensive—and highest grossing—films of all time, and The Hurt Locker, made for a teensy weensy $15 million. (Of course, much of the perceived competition was due to reporters making a big fuss over the angle that respective directors James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow used to be married.) Outside of a few technical awards, Avatar was shut out of the Oscars, while The Hurt Locker made off with six awards. In a time that Americans are frowning on the government and big corporations for fiscal irresponsibility, are Academy members endorsing frugality?

For what it’s worth, I loved both Inception and Toy Story 3, but I don’t believe either should win Best Picture. Last year I was absolutely rooting for The Hurt Locker over Avatar, and I would have been supremely pissed if the bloated Curious Case of Benjamin Button had won in 2009. Examining my motives for these prejudices, I acknowledge that I’m always far more impressed if a brilliant film is made with relatively modest means. As Tron Legacy so aptly demonstrated this year, throwing money at a production hardly guarantees its quality, but I do feel that an extraordinary film can be made more easily with an extraordinary budget. Films like Winter’s Bone, Black Swan, The King’s Speech  and 127 Hours, films made with great initiative and craft but meager funds, are laudable in their ambition as well as their execution. If the Academy Awards of the last few years do in fact indicate a trend of rewarding small budgets—and obviously we’ll have to wait a few more years to know for sure—then we can hope to see Hollywood investing more in restrained productions made with passion and talent rather than a pile of money and studio interference. I think I could get used to that.

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