THE Oscars have come in for criticism because they’ve decided not to allow people to attend on a “working from home” or Zoom call basis – which rules out lots of people who happen not to live in Los Angeles or who may, as a fair number of the nominees do, live in countries such as the United Kingdom, where it is currently a criminal offence to go abroad without a very good reason.

On the one hand, this is the acme of a “First World Problem”, about which we should not care a jot, since it involves rich and often silly and self-important people who don’t do anything at all vital being mildly put out. On the other, as you could have learnt if you saw The Devil Wears Prada, it’s a multi-billion dollar industry on which the hopes, dreams, and everyday spending of millions of ordinary people – and thus the jobs of millions of other ordinary people – depend.

Still, this has been a weird time for the business of making film (and television). Other bits of the entertainment industry, such as theatre and live music, have been more or less shut down but, because most of us have been stuck in our own homes for a year, we’ve spent more and more time in front of screens.

You’d think that would be good news for film-makers. For example, Netflix, which had an annual gross profit of about $5.5 billion in 2018, notched up nearly twice that last year. But the company is pouring a large amount into producing new content, something it needs to keep providing in order to bring in more subscribers.

On the whole, Netflix is making a decent job of that – there’s certainly much more new material on it that you might want to watch than there is on competing streaming channels like Amazon Prime or (ignoring its substantial backlist) Disney Plus. It has an impressive score rate, when you take into account the fact that it’s turning out at least 50 things I don’t have any interest in seeing for every one that I do.

The whole “Golden Age of Television” thing that people claim we are living in the middle of may be a bit overblown, though. I suspect it’s a selective recollection of everything from The Avengers and The Prisoner through to Brideshead Revisited, Barchester Chronicles and Breaking Bad, The Wire and The Sopranos, while forgetting the tremendous clunkers like Triangle and Eldorado.

On Sunday night, like everyone else, I watched Line of Duty, but then I turned over to BBC Four and watched the first couple of episodes of Between The Lines which, I was appalled to realise, is now nearly 30 years old. I thought it was, on the whole, rather better acted and scripted, and hasn’t – except for the clothes and the cars and the fact that everyone smokes all the time – dated all that much. Then I remembered I’d seen Ciarán Hinds, who’s in the first episode in a bit part but is now a fixture as a character actor in major Hollywood pictures, several times at the Citz a dozen years before that, and felt even older.

The thing that television is doing, however, and has been doing very successfully for decades, and that Hollywood hasn’t done much since the turn of the century, is offering a wide range of material. Of course much of it is, as is much of everything in the arts, or food, or interior design, or any other creative endeavour, dross. But that is the price you pay for getting a lot of things, like Battlestar Galactica or Game of Thrones, that are often very good, and a few things, like Chernobyl or The Queen’s Gambit, that are outstandingly great.

Hollywood seems to have forgotten this notion of range. The major studios turn out (or tended to turn out, before the pandemic) between a dozen and two dozen pictures apiece each year. While there are nominally several hundred Hollywood films produced, there are, in effect, no more than a hundred that get widespread cinema release, with the result that all the eggs get put into a fairly small basket.

When I say the basket’s small, I mean that, while the scope of the kind of films made is now tiny, every picture has to be huge. For most people, with their enormous televisions in their front room, to bother going to the pictures is only going to be to worthwhile for something that demands to be seen on a gigantic screen, as some kind of occasion. As a result, you don’t get to see the feature film equivalent of Chernobyl or The Queen’s Gambit at the cinema, as would have been normal in the 1970s. It’s Avengers Assemble or nothing.

Some films deserve it, of course. The last film I saw at the pictures was Tenet. Though it’s actually a movie that’s easier on DVD, because it makes sense only on the third or fourth viewing, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss seeing it on a very big screen. I feel rather the same way about Denis Villeneuve’s forthcoming Dune, and I imagine some people (though not me) will about the next Bond film.

Compare it, however, with Game of Thrones which, whatever your view of its merits, compares in scale and ambition with mainstream cinema releases, and has probably generated much more in the way of revenue, and it looks like a lousy investment. Each episode of that show, which employed literally hundreds of people in about five different countries, cost around $5million, which is an awful lot of money.

But the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, all of them lousy, cost ten times that before they’d shot a frame, just on Johnny Depp’s salary. On Stranger Tides cost almost $400 million. And it’s not just a question of fantasy or sci-fi settings being intrinsically more expensive than making something like Gregory’s Girl (£200,000). Mad Max cost $300,000, but grossed more than $100 million; Alien, and even the original Star Wars had relatively small budgets for the time (about $11 million each).

It seems a shame that an industry where imagination is supposed to be the stock in trade has so little of it. It can still be done. Three years ago Steven Soderbergh made Unsane, a splendid little thriller, for less than $1.5 million. On his phone.

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