It's a funny thing, but today's movie studios are no longer in the Oscar business. If there's one common thread among this year's five best picture nominees, it's that they were largely financed by outside investors. The most money any studio put into one of the nominees was the $21 million that Miramax anted up for "Finding Neverland." The other nominated films were orphans -- ignored, unloved and turned down flat by most of the same studios that eagerly remake dozens of old TV series (aren't you looking forward to a bigger, dumber version of "The Dukes of Hazzard"?) or bankroll hundreds of sequels, including a follow-up to "Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo," a film that was sadly overlooked at Oscar time because apparently nobody had the foresight to invent a category for Best Running Penis Joke Delivered by a Third-Rate Comic.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 27, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
Oscar nominations -- There were no credits on photos for three Oscar-nominated films on Wednesday's A1. The photo of Leonardo DiCaprio for "The Aviator" was taken by Andrew Cooper, Miramax Films; the photo of Clint Eastwood for "Million Dollar Baby" was taken by Merie W. Wallace; and the photo of Jamie Foxx for "Ray" should have been credited to Universal Studios.
Most of the nominees aren't even classic outside-the-system indie movies. They're artistic gambles financed by entrepreneurs. If you want serious cash on the barrelhead for an Oscar picture today, you have to find yourself a cinematic sugar daddy willing to foot the bill. "The Aviator," though released by Miramax, was financed largely by Graham King, who was responsible for roughly $80 million of the film's $116-million budget (the rest coming from Miramax and Warner Bros. Films). "Ray," which earned six Oscar nominations, was financed by real estate tycoon turned media baron Phil Anschutz, who put up the entire $40-million budget after every studio in town had passed on the project.
Even Clint Eastwood, who's been making movies for Warner Bros. since before many of his rival best actor nominees were born, couldn't persuade the studio that spent $85 million on "Scooby-Doo" to put up $30 million for "Million Dollar Baby." So Hollywood's most revered actor-director went begging. When no other studio would make the film, Eastwood persuaded another entrepreneur, Lakeshore Entertainment's Tom Rosenberg, to put up half of the budget, with Warners kicking in the rest.
So how do good movies get made these days? Luckily, in Hollywood, some people just won't take no for an answer, which might be bad if you're a waiter trying to take someone's lunch order but good if you have a yen to see ambitious movies.
Take as an example "Sideways," which earned five Oscar nominations Tuesday. The film's writer-director, Alexander Payne, took the project to a slew of studios with his cast already in place. He got a chorus of noes, not because the studios didn't like the script but because they wanted Brad Pitt or George Clooney instead of relative unknowns Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church in the leading roles. By the time Payne and producer Michael London took the movie to Fox Searchlight, which agreed to make it for a meager $16 million, they'd gotten a yes from only one other studio, Paramount Pictures. One studio told London it was full up with special-effects thrillers -- "We've already done our one movie about people."
From the studio point of view, the goal these days is to make movies that have the kind of easy accessibility that allows them to perform well in international markets, on DVD and in all the other ancillary revenue streams the studios love to boast about to investors. Without the marketing momentum of Oscar nominations, it was hard to make a safe bet -- the emphasis, of course, being on "safe" -- that any of these films would turn a profit. Anyone in Hollywood could recite the excuses the filmmakers heard wherever they went, whether it was "Ray" (sorry, but African American dramas do zero business overseas), "Million Dollar Baby" (geez, too old-fashioned and downbeat), "Sideways" (how do you sell a movie about wine-tasting slobs with two actors no one's ever heard of?) or "The Aviator," which looked like a bad bet being a $116-million movie directed by Martin Scorsese, who had always gone over budget and never directed a movie that made close to $100 million in the U.S.
What a difference a few years of bottom-line obsession has made in Hollywood. In 1997, with Leonardo DiCaprio on board as the star, two studios ended up spending $200 million to make James Cameron's Oscar-winning "Titanic." Today, even though DiCaprio remains a huge international star, it was financier King, not a studio, who took the risk on "The Aviator." Don't think DiCaprio doesn't know it. Hanging in King's office in Santa Monica is a framed picture of the star kneeling in front of one of the film's biplanes, with the hand-scrawled inscription: "To Graham, thank you for being the only one to have the [guts] to make my dream a reality!"