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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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The bitter truth about Hollywood's Oscar obsession

October 1, 2008 |  1:04 pm

DeadoscarEveryone 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 still sweltering here in Los Angeles, but the whole insane Oscar shootout is already going great guns. When I was at the recent 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 Arts section of this Monday's New York Times had a lead piece by Michael Cieply 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, who 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 two 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.

Envelopeoscar Everywhere you look, Oscar chatter dominates the media landscape, starting with my own newspaper, which publishes a weekly broadside during awards season called The Envelope, which exists largely as a vehicle to sweep up some of that Oscar advertising loot. Over at Variety, columnist Anne Thompson was just speculating about a best actor showdown between "Soloist" costars Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx.

There are a thousand and one Oscar-oriented websites nattering about the awards every day, one of the few intelligent ones being Kris Tapley's In Contention, whose Tuesday roundup offered 11 different Oscar-related stories. They included everything from a Hollywood Elsewhere post where blogger Jeff Wells said "a guy" he knew had heard that Gus Van Sant's "Milk" was a solid contender to the Envelope's Tom O'Neil, who was already hosting a round of Oscar best picture predictions, even though barely any of the films had been seen by any of the voters.

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. Don't believe me? Just keep reading: 

Children_5In 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, only earning 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 bigger 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 couldn'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 a 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 their consumers, "If you want quality, come back in October. We don't think it works in April or August"?

The cutthroat competition inspired by Oscar mania brings out the worst in everybody. The headlines have been dominated this past week by an almost comical feud between Rudin and Harvey Weinstein over the release date of "The Reader." The source of the feud? Depending on whom you believe, Weinstein's mad lust for Oscar glory or his canny sense that "The Reader" needs the cachet of Oscar nominations sparked a knock-down, drag-out brawl after the film's director, Stephen Daldry, rebelled against being pressured into rushing the film into release.   

The really cruel joke is that all this money and attention is being lavished on a glittering prize that has less significance to moviegoers than ever before. It's not just the Oscar broadcast ratings that are in serious decline, it's the influence of the awards. For the broadest demographic--moviegoers under 40--the Oscars are an insular, self-congratulatory event whose broadcast is savored for its kitschy celebrity excess, not as a barometer of movie quality. With the Oscar audience shrinking each year, studios find themselves spending more money to reach less and less people. Oscar nominations still get enormous media play, but if you want to reach real moviegoing consumers, you'd do better getting your film's star talent on "Oprah."

The Oscars have become a circular firing squad, touted and debated by a small coterie of Oscar publicists, bloggers, marketers, agents, producers and antsy studio executives--all talking to themselves. The public has grown bored with the whole charade. They'd rather be watching "American Idol," which has far more verve and sense of immediacy. We no longer live in a quality culture, or more accurately, a culture that aspires to quality. So when the Oscars are dominated by small movies that rarely had any mass audience impact, they feel marginalized. Over-50 moviegoers still pay attention to awards, but they go see good movies anyway. All they need to hear is some good buzz from their friends and critics and they're already in line--the costly Oscar marketing hoopla is largely wasted on them.

ClintStudio marketers say it easily costs $14 to $16 million to run a big-time Oscar best picture campaign. With the cost of trade ads going up again this year, Oscar campaigns will force an even bigger outlay of cash than ever. It's not even remotely worth it. I know we can't get rid of the Oscars. Nor can we rid ourselves of the media's inane obsession with awards-season horse race reporting. But it's time someone came to their senses. The studios always say they are pressured into huge Oscar outlays to keep their talent happy. Fair enough. But what would happen if someone Hollywood holds in high esteem--for example, Clint Eastwood, who has "Changeling" due later this month--threw his hat out of the ring? What if Clint told Universal to save its money and skip the Oscar campaigning, parties, gushy trade ads and all the other silliness?

Imagine the hand-wringing if "Changeling" got just as many award nominations as it would have if it had spent all those millions? That would definitely let all the hot air out of the Oscar balloon. It might also give more quality films an opportunity to compete on a level playing field and actually make some money. It might even push the back the onset of Oscar mania a few months.

Come on, Clint, make my day. 

Photo of a giant Oscar statue outside the Kodak Theatre by Al Seib / Los Angeles Times; The Envelope / Los Angeles Times; Clive Owen  and Claire-Hope Ashitey in "Children of Men" by Jaap Buitenjijk / Universal Studios; Clint Eastwood by Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times.    

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