Oscars and IP’s Romantic Collaborative

A pair of comments via the New York Times — David Carr, in the paper, and Michael Cieply, in the Carpetbagger blog — make two related claims.  One is that Academy Award nominations (including those released yesterday) betray a distinct tilt away from bigger, commercial, Hollywood films and toward more independent, auteur-ish films.  Two is that the tilt is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy; as AMPAS membership includes more filmmakers and industry professionals associated with independent auteur-ish films, more of those films get rewarded with nominations.

Cieply:

The morning’s Oscar nominations sent a powerful message about the Academy membership: the strict admissions policies enforced over the last five years have now pushed it past a tipping point. The roughly 5,800 members, once a Los Angeles-oriented and commercially minded bunch, are now more filmic and more foreign. The many nominees over the last few years for indie-style films and international fare are now Oscar voters. That surely helped push ‘The Reader,’ with British roots, past ‘The Dark Knight,’ which is pure Hollywood.

Carr:

This year’s Top 5 were studio and indie, big and little, broad and very specific. The string that pulls them together is not where the films came from in terms of backing, but where they come from artistically. Each of the films selected for a best-picture nomination — “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Frost/Nixon,” “Milk” and “The Reader” — represents the auteur ideal, in which a director is bankrolled and left pretty much alone. It is no coincidence that these five films were created by directors who also received best-director nominations. 

“People always parse these things as indie versus studio, but it’s not like that anymore,” said James Schamus, head of Focus Features, a specialty division at Universal Pictures, which landed in the money with “Milk.”

“Our movie is a great big movie produced by a smaller indie division, so what is it really?” he said. “It’s just a great movie that tells an epic story from a director who knows how to tell one. It’s not that Hollywood has some kind of cult around directors, but they have an expectation that Academy films will have artistic legitimacy.”

Taking the comments at face value — always a dangerous proposition when it comes to film, but what the heck — and blending them with the received copyright scholarship that stresses the influence of “romantic author” rhetoric on the law at the expense of collaborative creativity, they can be spun in a couple of different ways.

On the one hand, film has often been held up as a paradigmatic collaborative art, Exhibit A in the argument that the romantic author trope leads to suppression in copyright of the value of creative contributions beyond those of the visionary director or producer.  Now we see that Oscar himself is deluded by false consciousness; the more that filmmakers are given the opportunity to validate and reward collaborative creativity during the awards season, the more they retreat into the romantic model.  Note, however, that the romantic author mechanism here doesn’t serve economic self-interest so much as it serves cultural self-interest:  The authorship trope reinforces a status hierarchy in the film business that elevates the true “visionary” to the top of the artistic heap.  Economically, and in terms of IP ownership, the filmmakers are subservient to the producing interests that control the distribution of the films.  There is false consciousness not at one level, but at two.

On the other hand, use of the romantic author model here might be part of an enormous, winking, self-conscious bait-and-switch on the part of the industry as a whole.  Using awards season to remind us all of the scarcity of recognition for the auteur filmmaker may be part of a grand not-completely-intentional plan (by whom?) to lead studios and financing enterprises, which are the economic collaborators, to front money for more indy and auteur-ish films.  Validate the auteur through the prestige of the Academy Award, sure, but pay (no?) attention to how the money responds.  There’s your collaboration.    Recognizing the filmmaker with prestige may be the surest way to validate the reality of economic and creative multiplicity.  Maybe the romantic author trope has its uses?