Studios Score Strong Showing in Oscar Nominations

Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection
"The King's Speech" leads nominations with 12, including Best Picture.

After losing out to the little guys during recent awards seasons, the studios are flush with Oscar nominees this year.

The studios are back! Just look at the numbers: paramount scored 20 Oscar nominations (a pair shared with DreamWorks Animation and one with Marvel); Sony has 17; Disney, Warner Bros. and Fox nabbed 12 apiece; and Universal tallied five. That’s a long way from a few years ago, when the majors had all but abandoned the awards game, leaving it to be dominated by art house companies and specialty outfits, many of which have since closed.

True, the numbers are somewhat distorted; they include studio-owned units such as Sony Pictures Classics (which earned seven of Sony’s noms), Fox Searchlight (11 of Fox’s) and Focus Features (four of Universal’s).

But when you see a major like Sony fielding The Social Network, its first genuine Oscar contender since Jerry Maguire, and Paramount in the running with The Fighter and True Grit — all the more remarkable given that its chiefs, Brad Grey and Rob Moore, swore off awards campaigning after lavishing millions on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a picture that drew 13 nominations but a paltry three below-the-line wins — you have to think a sea change is in the air.

Nothing illustrated that more than the Sony party following the Golden Globes, when Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman Michael Lynton and co-chairman Amy Pascal were almost giddy about Social’s win for best drama. They’ll be giddier still if it triumphs in a tight race with the Weinstein Co.’s The King’s Speech to win the best picture Oscar — the Weinsteins being the only true independent to best the studios in this year’s competition.

So why the shift?

One reason is that the studios now have financial backers who can make them feel safer with movies like these. David Ellison, son of Oracle founder Larry Ellison, wisely put up 50 percent of the money for True Grit through his Skydance Prods., and Relativity Media’s Ryan Kavanaugh — the human piñata of film finance — might have the most to celebrate with the current Oscar noms thanks to investments in The Fighter (which he fully financed) and Social (50 percent). Both films’ success should reassure Hollywood that he’s not just making money from movies — a question mark till now — but also top-caliber ones.

Another reason is the Academy’s trophy inflation, upping the best picture nominees from five to 10 as of a year ago, following The Dark Knight’s failure to make the finals. Last year, that helped such movies as The Blind Side and Up slip into the top 10; this year, the change paved the way for the blockbusters Inception, Toy Story 3 and True Grit.

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The added slots don’t just boost the Oscar-telecast audience by allowing commercial as well as art house fare to get nominated, they also encourage the studios to spend money on the Oscar race. Hence Disney, which made a rather ballyhooed exit from the specialty world when it sold Miramax Films last year, has lavished a small fortune on its campaign to get Toy Story 3 a best picture nomination. And the movie received not only that but nominations in four other categories.

But the shift arguably reflects something else, too: No matter how much studios might be run by corporate bureaucrats, the executives in charge of production dream of leaving a legacy — certainly one that’s greater than Zombie Strippers! or the improbably named Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs.

Columbia’s Pascal and Fox chairman Tom Rothman owe their bonuses to such monoliths as Sony and News Corp., but they are steeped in film history. Pascal, after all, started out as an assistant to indie producer Tony Garnett, one of the pioneers of England’s “kitchen sink” dramas, whose collaboration with director Ken Loach was as influential to British filmmaking in the 1960s as the “angry young men” who dominated its theater. And Rothman, who has recently developed a reputation as somewhat inimical to auteurs, spent years working for the Samuel Goldwyn Co. — one of the great names in movie history — as well as putting Searchlight on the map.

Scratch their surface, and the films these executives are most passionate about aren’t the ones that make heaps of money. In Rothman’s case, he’s probably proudest of Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, the 2003 period piece on which he toiled forever. And though he’s now mostly associated with mass-market fare, even if a movie like 127 Hours or Black Swan is released under the Searchlight logo, it’s still a Fox film and must meet with his and fellow chairman Jim Gianopulos’ approval.

Which isn’t to be naive.

All these executives still put the bottom line first, and executives at a studio that belongs to the Sony Corp. or News Corp. or Time Warner are just as likely to tout their No. 1 place at the box office as their Oscar nominations. But they’re humans too. And that means sometimes — just sometimes — quality counts.           

OSCAR NOMS BY FILM

The King’s Speech (Weinstein Co.): 12
True Grit (Paramount): 10
Inception (Warner Bros.): 8
The Social Network (Sony): 8
The Fighter (Paramount): 7
127 Hours (Fox Searchlight): 6
Black Swan (Fox Searchlight): 5
Toy Story 3 (Disney): 5

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