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Films about filmmaking: is Hollywood navel-gazing?


For the third time in four years, 2015’s Best Picture Oscar winner is a film about filmmaking or acting — raising questions about how a self-centered Hollywood chooses its top honorees.

Already under fire for a lack of racial diversity in its Oscar nominations, Tinseltown awoke Monday to a debate about another arguably inward-looking trend in its awards choices.

While industry insiders argue that it reflects a trend towards more personal and authentic filmmaking, at least one commentator saw it as part of a wider cultural pattern based on social media and TV reality shows.

“Narcissism is being celebrated today in our pop culture and now it is emerging at the Oscars,” Tom O’Neil of the Gold Derby awards-season ranking website told AFP.

The comments came after “Birdman,” about a washed-up cinema actor battling to revive his career on the stage, swept to victory at the 87th Academy Awards on Sunday night.

Its best picture triumph follows that of 2012’s black-and-white “The Artist,” coincidentally also about a washed-up actor, in that case a silent movie star struggling to transition to the talkies.

And the following year’s winner was the reality-based “Argo,” about a CIA mission to extricate US diplomats from post-revolution Tehran by pretending to be a movie production crew.

“It is navel-gazing but it isn’t,” Tim Gray, awards editor at industry journal Variety, told AFP.

He explained: “For decades the conventional wisdom in Hollywood was that movies about movies don’t make any money, so they didn’t make a lot of them.

– More ‘personal,’ less corporate –

“But I feel now filmmakers are reacting against the corporate mentality, which is always about chase films, about superheroes, about blockbusters, and they’re making more personal films,” he told AFP.

Ironically, “Birdman” is in part about superheroes — its main character, played by former “Batman” star Michael Keaton — struggles on screen with his demons in the form of animated elements from his former career.

Robert Thompson, a professor of pop culture at Syracuse University, agreed that the films-about-filmmaking trend is only natural, and not necessarily a bad thing.

Noting that he teaches in TV and film school, he said: “I would say probably, sometimes 80 percent of the projects I see are, in one form or another, about the making of movies. So it’s an industry that’s self-reflective.

“Movies are sometimes really good at talking about themselves, but I don’t think that necessarily means in an a self-absorbed way,” he said.

The big controversy at this year’s Oscars was the lack of racial diversity — every single one of the 20 acting nominees was white, and there were notably snubs for the main actor and director of Martin Luther King Jr film “Selma.”

The other wider issue was the perennial one about blockbusters v art-house movies: all but one of the eight best picture nominees were independent productions, rather than crowd-pleasing blockbusters that the masses go to see.

Take the two frontrunners going into Sunday’s show: “Birdman” was written, produced and directed by Mexican Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for some $18 million, while “Boyhood” cost only $4 million to make — over 12 years.

That is a drop in the ocean compared to the $100-200 million budgets of studio hits from last year like “Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1,” “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “Big Hero 6.”

Pop professor Thompson said the fact that three of the four last best picture winners were relatively small budget and about actors or filmmaking was interesting, but should not detract from the main message.

“That is a pretty interesting consistency. But the most important thing was that all three of those movies were really good movies,” he said.


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