Oscar-bait no more: why serious-issue dramas are floundering

Steve Rose
Oscar-bait no more: why serious-issue dramas are floundering. Worthy movies such as Dark Waters used to be the toast of Hollywood. But is the audience for them drying up?

Dark Waters must be the least Todd Haynes film Todd Haynes has ever made. Based on the true story of a corporate lawyer (played by Mark Ruffalo) who switches sides to expose pollution by the DuPont chemical company, it is powerful and creditable, but does not feel like the work of the man who gave us the lush, stylised likes of Carol and Far from Heaven. It feels more like an Oscar-bait issue movie in the mould of Erin Brockovich. Except with Dark Waters, the awards panels didn’t bite and neither, going by US box-office numbers, have the public. The formula has stopped working, but the films keep coming.

Which is why we need to talk about Participant Media. Participant was founded in 2004 by eBay billionaire Jeff Skoll with the noble intention of producing movies with “socially relevant themes”. By many measures, it has succeeded. Participant has received 74 Oscar nominations and 19 wins. Its documentaries have included An Inconvenient Truth, Citizenfour and this year’s Oscar winner, American Factory. It has also had a hand in hits from Good Night, and Good Luck to Lincoln to Roma, and often backed up its movies with campaigning on the issues they raise.

At its best, Participant hits that sweet spot between commercial appeal and “social relevance”. At its worst, it has become an issue-movie production line. Its technique is well established: take a true story, ripped less from the headlines than the features section of the New York Times; attach a respected director and some well-meaning A-listers; and churn out an earnest, liberal-leaning dramatisation. Before Haynes, there was Richard Linklater (Fast Food Nation), Gus Van Sant (fracking drama Promised Land), and the man behind Brockovich itself, Steven Soderbergh (Matt Damon whistleblower movie The Informant!). This awards season, as well as Dark Waters, Participant had a hand in fact-based legal drama Just Mercy, starring Michael B Jordan and Jamie Foxx. It has met a similar fate.

Related: Why a corporate lawyer is sounding the alarm about these common chemicals | Carey Gillam

Perhaps Participant’s formula has polluted the issue-drama waters, but indifference to films such as Dark Waters is also a symptom of a blockbuster-saturated marketplace. That sweet spot between commercial and worthy barely exists now. Instead, Participant has been supporting schmaltzier fare such as The Help and Green Book. It is not as if interest in socially relevant stories has waned, but they are now made as straight documentaries or small-screen series.

Maybe they are not what cinema does best. For comparison, 25 years before Dark Waters, Todd Haynes made a brilliant film about health and paranoia: Safe, starring Julianne Moore. It was too vague and unsettling to tick the “social relevance” box, but it somehow encapsulated its time. That is what great film-makers can do, when they are trusted to.