Can `Slumdog...' save the Oscars?

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By Andy Goldberg

Los Angeles, Feb 24 (DPA) The exuberant Oscar victory of "Slumdog Millionaire" helped the Oscar ceremony end on a high note. But by Monday morning, the aftermath of the Oscars did not seem to bode well for the California film industry or the glittering event that was meant to celebrate it.

"Slumdog...", a British production made largely in the slums of Mumbai, garnered one-third of the awards - taking home eight of the night's 24 Oscars, including best picture and best director.

Three of the four acting prizes went to foreigners: English rose Kate Winslet in "The Reader", a British production based on a German novel; Spanish flame Penelope Cruz in "Vicky Christina Barcelona", which was made in Spain by expat New Yorker Woody Allen; and the late Aussie heartthrob Heath Ledger for "The Dark Knight".

The most successful US films were "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" with three awards for visual effects, makeup and art direction; and biopic "Milk", which garnered a best actor award for Sean Penn and an original screenplay honour. Both documentary awards went abroad, as did the prizes for the short live and animated films.

The failure of the US movies to win their domestic industry's largest prize is not really all that surprising. For many years the almost 6,000 voting members of the Academy have made a clear distinction between the kind of blockbuster populist fodder at which Hollywood still excels, and the artistic and superbly nuanced movies that they like to recognise as the supreme embodiment of their craft.

Studios were usually willing to go along with producing smaller films with supposedly strong Oscar chances because of the prestige involved in winning the ultimate prize and the prospect that the victorious movie would recoup its outlay on strong DVD sales.

However, sales of DVDs are now slumping, while the Blu-Ray format meant to succeed the DVD is nowhere near as popular. Combine that with the debilitating recession and critics from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal have been predicting the demise of the US arthouse movie.

"Slumdog...", which cost just $14 million to make but has already earned more than $160 million at the global box office, may just put those thoughts on hold. It could prompt American filmmakers to a wider global view, a more visceral style of storytelling, and a more inclusive perspective that appeals more to audiences around the world.

The Oscar ceremony itself also still needs a revamp, despite the best efforts of Hugh Jackman to instil the moribund ceremony with some youthful vitality. Though ratings were up by six percent over last year's show, critics were pretty unanimous that it was hardly worth tuning in.

"Slumdog..." success certainly decreased the evening's drama content - but it remains clear that the vast majority of potential film fans are too busy Facebooking, video-gaming, texting or otherwise multi-tasking their way through modern life to devote three hours to watching a film competition filled with overpaid and overdressed movie stars.

"I guess reinventing the Oscars is harder than it looks," noted Oscar guru Patrick Goldstein in the Los Angeles Times. Like many others he puzzled over the "awkward, listless and underwhelming" cabaret numbers, the nostalgic screening of past acceptance speeches, and the boring and long-winded tributes paid to each of the acting nominees.

Goldstein's verdict was that the show was an unmitigated flop, an "over-scripted evening that made Hollywood's oldest award show feel even older and more in need of reinvention than ever".

The big question is whether any new format or presenter can really save the Oscars. Or maybe it needs a new class of film - one that combines Hollywood's blockbuster skills with the globally relevant film-making arts perfected by "Slumdog...".

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