Oscar Nominations of 2014: The Year of the Contemporary Historical Drama

Films and books are generally categorized as works of fiction or non-fiction.

These days, that line has been increasingly blurred by Oscar-nominated films such as Sony's (NYSE: SNE  ) Captain Phillips, Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA  ) /Focus Features' Dallas Buyers Club, Viacom (NASDAQ: VIA  ) /Paramount's The Wolf of Wall Street, The Weinstein Company's Philomena, and Fox's (NASDAQ: FOX  ) 12 Years a Slave.

Those four films represent varying degrees of fact enhanced by dramatic fiction, and represent the continuing rise of historical fiction in cinema.

Matthew McConaughey's stunning transformation in Dallas Buyers Club could lead to an Oscar. (Source: Guyspy.com)

In 2012, only two Oscar nominated films, Hugo and Moneyball, fell into this category. Last year, there were three -- Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty. This year, a whopping five out of the nine films nominated for Best Picture are based on true stories.

While some may chalk this up to coincidence, the trend indicates that audiences and critics are developing a taste for dramatized versions of real events, especially more character-centered and contemporary tales.

Let's take a closer look at why contemporary historical dramas have taken center stage this year, the strengths and weaknesses of the genre, and their commercial and critical reception.

How the contemporary historical drama genre came to be

The historical drama genre has evolved significantly over the past few decades.

Films like Ben Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Cleopatra (1963) once defined the epic historical drama.

However, the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War changed filmmaker's attitudes significantly by the 1970s, coating the once idealist genre with a thick layer of cynicism. Films like All the President's Men (1976), Raid on Entebbe (1977), The Deer Hunter (1978), and Apocalypse Now (1979) all took the genre down a dark road that forced audiences to reflect more thoroughly on contemporary events.

Ben Hur. (Source: Wikimedia)

Today, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, The Wolf of Wall Street, Philomena, and 12 Years a Slave can be considered the spiritual descendants of those earlier films -- focusing on the darker side of governments and human nature.

Captain Phillips, in particular, continues down the same road taken by Zero Dark Thirty -- leaving audiences with a nihilistic emptiness at the end, rather than any sense of victory, as the emaciated pirate leader is led away in chains.

These types of films also bear the scars of 9/11 -- the brief resurgence of American idealism seen in the films of the 1990s, such as Forrest Gump (1994), was replaced by sobering films filled with uncomfortable reflections, such as World Trade Center (2006), United 93 (2006), and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011).

The strengths and weaknesses of the contemporary historical drama

The core problem of the contemporary historical drama is the way it blurs the lines between fact and fiction. By claiming that a film is "based on actual events," creative teams have the freedom to dramatize and change real events as they see fit.

While not much harm was done by fictionalizing events from antiquity, such as the lives of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Cleopatra, mixing fact with fiction in contemporary stories is a more questionable practice.

For example, Zero Dark Thirty featured a female protagonist called Maya, who was responsible for orchestrating the final assault on Bin Laden's compound. However, Maya was a fictional, composite character only partially based on a real-life operative.

Some of this year's nominees follow that path of blending fact with fiction as well.

Captain Phillips. (Source: Businessinsider.com)

Captain Phillips, which was directed by United 93 director Paul Greengrass, has been harshly criticized by the real crew of the Maersk Alabama. According to the crew, the real Captain Phillips "recklessly" ignored warnings and entered pirate-infested waters to shorten the trip and cut costs -- a controversial point that was never addressed in the movie.

Stephen Frears' Philomena has been criticized for its anti-Catholic undertones and a major historical inaccuracy, in which the primary antagonist, Sister Hildegard McNulty, is shown meeting journalist Martin Sixsmith -- which would have been impossible since McNulty died in 1995, nine years before Sixsmith started his investigation.

Meanwhile, Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street is based on the memoirs of Jordan Belfort, who is hardly a reliable narrator. The film suffers from the same problems as Blow, Ted Demme's 2001 biopic about cocaine smuggler George Jung. When a real story, already documented by the media, is retold in first person by an unreliable narrator, then subsequently retold by filmmakers, things inevitably get distorted.

Filmmakers will undoubtedly continue to dramatize historical events, but this trend raises interesting questions -- do filmmakers have the responsibility of keeping films, especially those based on recent events, as accurate as possible? Or should they have the creative license to change these stories to enhance their dramatic power?

The business of contemporary historical dramas

It's an established fact that the most critically acclaimed films are not necessarily the most profitable ones. Yet in recent years, filmmakers have proven that achieving both is possible.

The Artist and Argo, which were respectively the Best Pictures of 2011 and 2012, were both box office hits. The Artist grossed $133 million globally on a tiny production budget of $15 million. Argo grossed $232 million on a budget of $44.5 million.

While none of this year's Oscar nominees can match Lionsgate's (NYSE: LGF  ) Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which grossed $848 million worldwide on a budget of $130 million, all of the aforementioned films were profitable while being loved by critics:

Film

Distributor

Production cost

Global box office

Rotten Tomatoes

Captain Phillips

Sony

$55 million

$215 million

93%

Dallas Buyers Club

Focus Features
(Comcast)

$5 million

$17 million

93%

The Wolf of Wall Street

Paramount (Viacom)

$100 million

$120 million

75%

Philomena

The Weinstein Company

$15 million

$59 million

92%

12 Years a Slave

Fox Searchlight

$20 million

$52 million

97%

Sources: Boxofficemojo, Rotten Tomatoes, industry websites.

Captain Phillips and The Wolf of Wall Street, the top performers, were clearly boosted by the appeal of leading actors Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio.

However, Dallas Buyers Club, Philomena, and 12 Years a Slave also represent incredible returns on their initial investments, with box office totals more than tripling their production budgets.

These films indicate that it doesn't take expensive special effects to make a profitable film -- which means that we could see more of these smaller, intimate films based on contemporary events.

The bottom line

It's important to remember that there are still other great Oscar-nominated films that I didn't mention in this article, such as the low-key sci-fi films Gravity and Her, American Hustle (which was loosely based on the Abscam investigations of the 1970s and 1980s), and Nebraska.

However, the sharp rise of contemporary historical dramas over the past three years deserves to be noticed by movie fans, critics, and investors alike.

What do you think, dear readers? Is this a start of a trend in filmmaking, and more importantly, could it be dangerous to merge fact with fiction? Let me know in the comments section below!

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