Of the five movies in the running to win the Oscar for best picture tonight, the one producing the biggest bucks for the bang isn't the record-setting extravaganza about the sinking luxury liner, or even the one featuring a big star like Jack Nicholson as an obsessive, compulsive writer.
It's the quirky one about the stripping unemployed factory workers with no stars in it that cost about what the catering budget runs on some major movie productions.
Made for a mere $3.5 million, "The Full Monty" could ultimately turn a profit of around $100 million, making it by far the biggest return on the dollar for any movie released last year, even "Titanic."
While the public attention has been riveted on the mammoth box office grosses for "Titanic" and previously on the money generated by such blockbusters as "Men in Black" and "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," it's a handful of what once were considered "small movies" that have returned to Hollywood some of the highest amounts of money per dollar invested.
"Good Will Hunting," the film about a genius janitor that cost $16 million to make, could turn a profit of as much as $50 million, even after Robin Williams is rewarded with a cut some estimate could reach as high as $20 million. In recent years, other modestly budgeted films such as "Babe," "Pulp Fiction" "Bean" "Little Women," "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Clueless" and "Fried Green Tomatoes" produced some of the best returns on the dollar for any films this decade, although most didn't get the kind of public attention a typical Hollywood blockbuster gets.
The whopping returns for films like "The Full Monty" are part of a growing phenomenon. Smaller films released without much fanfare that once would have had a limited box office potential have increasingly shown they can break out from the pack, and sometimes even do the kind of business a major Hollywood film does.
Credit such factors as an aging baby boom audience that wants more than conventional studio fare appealing to the broadest possible audience, a younger Generation X audience that has latched on to some independent filmmakers, and theater chains more willing to book smaller films into suburban multiplexes instead of traditional urban locales. Whereas a few years ago a small film might be lucky to open on a dozen screens in the Los Angeles area, today they can often open on as many as 50.
"You're now able to get into the suburban, upscale multiplex on the last remaining screen," said Mark Gill, president of Miramax LA, a company widely regarded as the best at marketing smaller films.
Add to that a foreign box office that has exploded in recent years--films such as "The Full Monty" and "Bean" performed much better overseas than in the United States. Finally, virtually every significant company that distributes smaller, specialized films is now owned by a deep-pocketed entertainment conglomerate. So when a movie like Fox Searchlight's "The Full Monty" or Miramax Films' "Good Will Hunting" comes along, there's a big entertainment company--Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. and the Walt Disney Co., respectively--lurking behind the scenes with money to exploit the movie in ways that weren't possible just five years ago.
"It's not that these movies were never made before," said Fox Searchlight Pictures President Lindsay Law. "But truly successful independent film distributors in years past were relatively small companies that had limits on spending. In the old days, the kind of companies that would have released a 'Full Monty' were always cash-strapped."
Hollywood isn't giving up on expensive blockbusters. While it's nice to have a stable of smaller films that can provide healthy returns and possibly break out into a major hit, Hollywood remains a high-octane business.
Studios still aim to have a few expensive, "event" movies a year that can return the huge amounts of revenue needed to fuel studio operations. Indeed, "Titanic" director James Cameron has estimated that the film, which cost $200 million-plus to make, could generate a profit of $600 million to be shared by the two studios that financed it, 20th Century Fox and Paramount Pictures. Although that return on investment doesn't match that of "The Full Monty," given a choice of one over the other, it's a sure bet every studio executive would take "Titanic."
20th Century Fox chief Bill Mechanic describes it as something of a polar system in which studios such as Fox are "getting out of the middle" range of films, movies that are considered financially riskier than either low-budget films or higher-budget ones. That's because big-budget films usually boast a star, director or screenwriter who can lure people to the theaters and smaller-budget films carry little financial risk. It's the middle-range movie--in the $50-million range--that has "middle-range ideas and middle-range casts," as Mechanic puts it, that often don't excite audiences.