Awards season: Silence is golden

French silent movie The Artist is defying its early critics and is in the running to take home the Academy Award for Best Picture. Ben East considers how attitudes are changing when it comes to independent cinema

If it was a film script, it would have been laughed out of Hollywood. The notion that The Academy might overlook new movies from Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen and, somehow, award the Oscar for Best Picture to a small French silent movie in black and white seems so fanciful as to be ridiculous. But on Sunday, when the 84th Academy Awards take place in Hollywood, this strange story may just come true: The Artist is heavily tipped to become the first silent film in 84 years to win the prestigious award. In fact, incredibly, it could end up winning 10.

Perhaps that’s being a bit too greedy. The Hollywood Reporter’s Awards Analyst Scott Feinberg thinks it will win Best Picture, and that Michel Hazanavicius and Jean Dujardin will take home Best Director and Best Actor respectively. “It’s incredible really,” he says. “Probably the least likely, hardest possible sell in the 21st century is a black and white silent movie. The studios primarily cater for the 18-25 demographic and this is the last thing those people would ever go for. But it’s not just audiences; I know very prominent people in the industry who said it couldn’t possibly be good. But in the end, they were worn down by word of mouth and sheer goodwill. And the fact that something with so much heart and soul and craft behind it has found its audience is inspirational.”

No matter what happens at the awards, then, The Artist has shown that there is a desire among a growing number of cinema-goers for films that aren’t CGI-heavy 3D blockbuster franchises. “When it comes to sequels, to romantic comedies, even horror movies, people are saying, ‘that’s enough’,” says the Senior Editor of Variety Arabia, Mohammed Rouda. Part of the battle for art-house film lies in convincing distributors that they won’t lose money if they put independent movies on at the local multiplex. As Rouda says, “The Artist is important because it’s proven that they are popular.”

Though as Feinberg argues, on the one hand audiences say they want something different from what they’re getting, but on the other they still turn out for the blockbusters they complain about. Nevertheless, independent films are making greater inroads into our viewing habits. Emirati director Nayla Al Khaja founded The Scene Club in Dubai and Aflam in Abu Dhabi, which show independent and art-house movies. She is really encouraged not just by the numbers of people attending, but the growing presence of such films in movie theatres too.

“To me, it feels a little like people are realising that they’ve been brainwashed by Hollywood. Sometimes, sadly, there is no choice. But these people are not dumb. And my experience is that when they actually watch independent films, they’re quickly hooked by them. I think people are inquisitive about these films because so often they’re windows into other people’s cultures.”

Whether The Artist itself will foster greater interest in foreign films on the international stage is something of a moot point; Feinberg is quick to point out that most people in the States didn’t even realise it was a French film. Which, in the end, isn’t that surprising – it’s silent, it’s set in Hollywood and the main distribution push came from The Weinstein Company, a renowned American operation. Still, Feinberg hopes that it will encourage filmmakers and studios to think more creatively. “What the success of The Artist proves is that if you have an original story and you tell it well, such quality ultimately rises to the top – if it’s given the opportunity to do so,” he says.

And increasingly, that opportunity is given by a much broader range of funders than the big studios. The Artist is French but its post-production clout came from America. Fellow Best Picture nominee The Help is a typically American story, but was co-produced by Abu Dhabi company Image Nation. “The world really has become one in this regard,” agrees Rouda. “You can, these days, watch a film that takes place in Texas but the funding could have come from UAE, Russia, Denmark, anywhere really.”

“And I think that’s a good thing,” adds Al Khaja. “It’s created new markets for independent film because you know you can get it into five or six countries worldwide and get your money back. Going through a giant company like Warner Brothers isn’t so crucial anymore”.

Which, in the end, is why all independent filmmakers should be cheering on The Artist. If it wins, it will prove that being adventurous and creative can not only make for great film, it can win you the biggest prize of all.