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Oscar Bait, Low-Budget SciFi and 3D Longevity – It’s the Return of John Scalzi’s Mailbag!

I think I caught some sort of bug (as in “flu,” not as in “insect” or “small alien creature that will devour me from the inside, leaving only a squishy husk”), and that bug is making it difficult for me to string together thoughts longer than a couple of paragraphs. You know what that means: To the mailbag!

First question:

This year the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences announced it was doubling the number of nominees for the Best Picture Oscar. Does this mean a science fiction movie might actually have a chance this year?

It’s funny; I think one of the reasons that the Academy is doubling up on nominees this year is because The Dark Knight didn’t make the cut last year, which surprised a number of people, including me. And I do think we’re going to see more of a range in this year’s nominees. That said, so far this year the science fiction movies are not really grabbing me as Best Picture contenders, even with the expanded nominee slots.

Of the movies already released, the only two I think are within hailing distance are District 9 and Moon, both of which come with problems. District 9 is gory and its story construction is all over the board; Moon simply hasn’t been seen by enough people, and it’s likely to be swamped by everything else. Up has a reasonable chance, although I think it’s only glancingly science fictional (and is a lock for Best Animated Feature anyway). Looking to the rest of the year, if Avatar A) does immense box office, and B) has a story that’s halfway decent, it has a shot, not the least because director James Cameron has been there before.

Otherwise, I think the real beneficiary of this expansion will be The Hangover, on which I’m laying down a marker as even odds to get onto the ballot. You heard it here first.

Next question:

Science fiction movies are usually big and expensive these days, so I was wondering if you can think of some good, really cheap scifi flicks.

Well, this year, Moon fits that bill: It was made for something on the order of $5 million (and has made just under that in the theaters, which suggests it might be profitable when it goes to DVD). One of my all time favorite examples, however, is 28 Days Later. It was made for $8 million, looks like it was made for $50 million, and brought in $80 million worldwide in theaters, which makes it staggeringly profitable.

If neither of these is cheap enough for you, my ace in the hole is 2003’s Primer, a clever little time travel story which did well with critics (72% at Rotten Tomatoes), won an award at Sundance, and reportedly cost $7,000 to make. It made only $474,000 at the box office, but that’s still a mind-blowing return on your investment. I also suspect it’s not actually possible to do science fiction more cheaply and have it be considered any possible flavor of “good,” but I’m willing to be convinced.

Final question of the day:

3D: It’s been tried before and it’s failed every time. How much longer will we have to endure it this time?

If you’re of the opinion that 3D flicks are to be endured rather than enjoyed, then I’ve got some bad news for you: 3D is here to stay this time. Unlike previous go-rounds, neither theaters or movie studios are treating it as a fad; theaters are rehabbing screens to project 3D using modern processes, and studios are announcing entire slates in 3D, most notably Dreamworks Animation, which has announced that all its releases from 2009 on would be in 3D. And of course there’s Avatar.

That said, I do think in the reasonably near future we’ll see some significant 3D flops, and studios will remember the trick doesn’t help when your movie is unwatchable in the first place. I also strongly suspect that 3D will stay in particular genres. It’s a no-brainer for computer animated movies, and it could add a little extra spice to adventure, action and (yes) science fiction — all genres, incidentally, with huge production budgets that would benefit from the surcharge theaters typically add to 3D ticket prices. I don’t really see it making many inroads into, say, historical dramas or most comedies because in those cases it doesn’t really add anything, and those audiences generally wouldn’t want it anyway.

So if you’re a hater, stick to historical dramas and comedies.

Winner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies and the novels Old Man’s War and Zoe’s Tale. He’s also Creative Consultant for the upcoming Stargate: Universe television series. His column appears every Thursday.

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