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Oscar mania's out of control

October 07, 2008|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

EVERYONE complains about how hard it is to find an audience for quality films, but no one ever talks about the force wreaking the most havoc on high-end movies -- the Oscars.

Wherever you look these days, you can't help but see how the film industry's obsession with chasing Oscar glory has created an insupportable financial model for quality films and quality filmmakers. In the past year or so, a host of specialty film divisions and indie producers -- notably Picturehouse, Warner Independent Pictures, Paramount Vantage, ThinkFilm and Sidney Kimmel Entertainment -- have either gone out of business or suffered huge losses largely because they wildly overspent on Oscar campaigns or made films that couldn't compete in the overheated Oscar marketplace.

It's only early October, but the whole insane Oscar shootout is already going great guns. When I was at the Toronto Film Festival, whenever I'd bump into a movie publicist after a screening, they never asked about the audience's reaction -- all they wanted to know was whether the film had Oscar potential. The New York Times' Michael Cieply recently wrote a piece detailing how the big Hollywood studios already have their pedals to the metal, ready to toss tens of millions into the Oscar money pit. Leading the charge, Cieply noted, is Paramount Pictures, which hopes that "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" will help studio chief Brad Grey prove that he can be an Oscar kingpin without the help of DreamWorks or his largely eviscerated Paramount Vantage specialty division.

One reason Vantage took a fall was that it had to spend so much money to run Oscar campaigns for "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood," the best picture nominees it co-produced with Miramax. Studio insiders say the two specialty divisions spent roughly $50 million marketing "No Country" alone, a healthy portion of that going to running a prolonged awards campaign for the movie, which was in theaters for nearly four months before winning its best picture statuette.

Everywhere you look, Oscar chatter dominates the media landscape, starting with my own newspaper, which publishes a weekly magazine during awards season called The Envelope, which slavishly covers the annual quest for accolades and certainly benefits from all that Oscar advertising. Over at Variety, columnist Anne Thompson was just speculating about a best actor showdown between "Soloist" costars Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx. And there are a thousand and one Oscar-oriented websites nattering about the awards every day.

The one thing you can say about the Academy Awards is that they have no trouble getting media ink. The trouble is once the media jury decides on a slim contingent of Oscar front-runners, all the other quality movies released in the final three months of the year find themselves starving for attention, with the Oscars having sucked all the air out of the room.


BUT THE Oscars are wreaking havoc on quality films in so many other ways. In 2006, Alfonso Cuaron's "Children of Men" was one of the year's most critically acclaimed films, full of bravura filmmaking and crowd-pleasing acting performances. But when it couldn't get any traction in the Oscar game, earning only three relatively minor nominations, it took a tumble at the box office. A host of films suffered a similar fate last year, most notably two critically acclaimed films, "Lars and the Real Girl" and "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," which flopped at the box office because they were made or released by tiny indies who didn't have the dough to compete with studio entries in the costly Oscar marketing game.

What the Oscars have done is create an artificial, entirely destructive cinematic demolition derby. It is now written in stone that a movie released in the first nine months of the year can't possibly compete for awards honors (even though in 2005, "Crash" was released in May and won best picture). People are so convinced that summer is a horrific time to put out quality films that when Paramount proposed releasing "No Country for Old Men" in August of last year, an enraged Scott Rudin took the movie to Miramax, which was willing to give it a more Oscar-friendly November release.

Terrified that Oscar voters will forget about a movie released in the spring, the studios and specialty divisions save all their best films for the last 12 weeks of the year, forcing them to engage in a suicidal fight to the death with other quality films, instead of having an eight-week run in March or June where they'd be practically the only well-reviewed film in the theaters. Can you imagine any other business that essentially tells its consumers, "If you want quality, come back in October. We don't think it works in April or August"?

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