SWhen you're done opening presents (slippers, again?) and eating your goose (not much meat, mostly fat) what will you do on Christmas? If you're like the rest of us gurgling popcorn stuffers, you'll go see one of the big ticket, Oscar-scented movies that are dancing on the screens down at your local multiplex. Australia, the Baz Luhrmann epic, will have been out for a month at that point, and its expensive glossy brother in arms, the life-in-reverse special effects vehicle The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, will have just come out that day. You'll spend a bundle on tickets and parking and snacks, and will it have been worth it? And, actually, will it have been worth it for the studios? Right now, the outlook seems pretty hazy. Australia cost a rumored $120 million to make, and Button is whispered about in the $150 million range. Which is astronomically expensive for movies that seriously hinge their box office receipts on resoundingly positive, ground-swelling reviews. There is always the potential for these films to be the next Titanic or Forrest Gump—darling little Oscar smashes that eventually became reviled bits of pop culture schmaltzery—but that's quite a gamble to take. It wasn't too long ago that the real things to see on Christmas were the Lord of the Rings films, big lush works of terrific filmmaking that they were. But those were exceptions to the increasingly depressing rule of large, painterly studio gambles being, for the most part, crap. So we wonder, then, why the Buttons and Australias of this world are still getting made, when the last four Best Picture Oscar winners were far smaller—and, most importantly, cheaper—in scale. Big budget box office thumps like The Last Samurai ($140 million) and Memoirs of a Geisha ($85 million) should have been the death knells of this creaky old idea of Holiday Prestige cinema. (Plus, nobody likes the Japs!) But here we're faced with Button, an FX-laden Magical Negro-besotted bit of Gumpery (though, Variety liked it! even if it's a bit "remote"), and Australia, a not that bad epic about a faraway land that, as a commenter astutely put it, is basically Canada with weirder mammals. In the core of my gooey heart, I hope they're both huge successes, because I sort of mourn the idea that the studios can make big, expensive, good dramas, but something tells me they won't win out in the end. We'll make early calls for Revolutionary Road (still studio, but way smaller), Slumdog Millionaire (a "specialty" studio pick-up), The Wrestler (tiny) instead.
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