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COLUMN ONE : What the Oscar Hath Wrought : Once there was just one awards show in Hollywood. Now, money, marketing and ego have fueled a plethora of prizes. Some fear overkill.


Will Tom Hanks or John Travolta be named best actor? Will Jodie Foster or Susan Sarandon win? And at the end of the evening, will "Forrest Gump" emerge as the top movie of the year?

The Oscars?

No, it's the inaugural "Blockbuster Entertainment Awards" in June, sponsored by the video rental chain. Like tonight's granddaddy of award shows, this will be a prime-time network special with envelopes opened breathlessly and more than enough thank-yous to go around.

The Oscars remain in a league of their own, with nearly 80 million TV viewers expected tonight, drawn to the glamour and prestige that 66 years of history bring with them.

But fledgling awards such as Blockbuster's reflect the gluttony of Hollywood's newest cottage industry--giving awards to itself.

What started in 1929 as a low-key banquet of lobster, terrapin and fruit at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel has proliferated into more than 50 award presentations. The trend is fueled by television ratings, marketing desires, fund-raising needs and ego.

Once, there were only the Oscars for movies, the Emmys for television, the Grammys for music and the Tonys for the stage. Now, for music alone, there are the Grammys, the Billboard awards, the MTV awards, the Country Music Assn. awards, the American Music Awards, the Soul Train awards, the World Music Awards and the People's Choice Awards. Next year the Recording Industry Assn. of America will join in.

Make a family film and you might win a "Teddy Bear" from Movieguide magazine. Make a movie about animals and a Genesis Award could be yours.

In the past six months, nearly 70 "lifetime achievement awards" were presented in the entertainment industry. In 1994, with six years to spare, Harrison Ford was proclaimed by theater owners as the "Box Office Star of the Century," presumably beating out Gable, Bogart and Garbo. Even Rodney Dangerfield, who made his name griping about how he gets no respect, took home a comedy lifetime achievement award last month.

"We even had proposed an award show for awards shows," said television veteran Dick Clark, who, having produced about 150 such programs, is Hollywood's acknowledged king of the genre.

Which raises the question: Will it all prove to be too much of a good--or, more often, mediocre--thing? Earlier this month, the Grammy show, much maligned in recent years for being stodgy, saw its ratings drop 27% from the year before. Industry executives partly blame the dip on competition from hipper shows. Even television's own Emmys have suffered from ratings problems. There does seem to be a limit to the number of award shows that viewers will watch, as ABC discovered when its much-hyped American Television Awards flopped two years ago.

No industry enjoys congratulating itself as much as Hollywood does. Economics--more than ego stroking--is the major reason. Award programs, which can cost from less than $1 million to as much as $4 million to produce, are cheaper to deliver than, say, a TV movie of the week. The shows are considered advertiser-friendly because they usually lack controversy. And, despite the glut of shows, most generally pull in respectable ratings, which executives attribute to continued public infatuation with celebrities. All told, they say, a network can turn a profit of $750,000 or more from a successful show.

"Generally, they do better than the programs they replace, which is the first important measure," said David Poltrack, CBS senior vice president of research and planning.

Those numbers may be changing. Producers complain that costs are climbing, especially to accommodate the stars who are critical to the success of each show. Although presenters don't receive a fee and appear largely for the publicity, musical performers can run up a big tab. The bill for singers with big production numbers can range from $50,000 to $100,000. Rap's Hammer once brought an entourage of 85 singers, dancers and workers who had to be housed and fed before an appearance on the American Music Awards.

Awards also serve as a marketing gimmick, providing a platform to show clips as well as plug upcoming projects. Action star Chuck Norris once candidly told the media assembled backstage at the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.'s Golden Globes awards that he showed up to promote an upcoming film. "You gotta ask me about my movies. That's why I'm here," the actor told reporters.

Do awards themselves have a financial value? By the time many are handed out in the spring--the prime time for award shows--most eligible movies released the previous year are either in video stores or in the homestretch of their box-office runs. That has led some studios chiefs to complain that awards should be moved up to January to better capitalize on the tail end of the holiday movie season.

It's hard to imagine that a smash such as "Forrest Gump"--which has taken in $315 million at the domestic box office--can do much better than it already has even if it wins all 13 Oscars for which it is nominated.

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