Whoever wins, Oscar will be in good hands

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Oscar outlook: As Oscar races go, this one's been about as unusual as you could possibly imagine.

To begin with, much of the awards season was spent speculating not about who would get nominated but about whether the 80th annual Academy Awards would even manage to take place in its traditional three hour-plus star-studded telecast format given the writers' strike. Of course, labor peace came just in the nick of time to save the day for Oscar. Unfortunately, there's no way to do a last minute deal with viewers to ensure that Oscar's ratings Sunday night will be healthy enough to keep ABC and its big spending sponsors happy.

There's good reason for concern about the telecast's likely ratings since the best picture nominees aren't films that have amassed the kind of blockbuster grosses that would translate into a major rooting interest by viewers across the country. Without taking anything away from any of the five nominees, all of which I liked personally and would be happy to see win, they just aren't mainstream appeal movies that people between the coasts are likely to get excited about.

Even "Juno" with its terrific and highly profitable domestic cume of over $125 million isn't the kind of boxoffice monster that would get the office water cooler crowd fired up about its chances of winning. Those kinds of top-grossing pictures -- like "Spider-Man 3," "Shrek the Third," "Transformers" or "Pirates of the Caribbean" -- just don't get best picture nods these days.

"Juno's" four competitors for best picture have, of course, done even less business. "No Country for Old Men's" grossed over $61 million. "Atonement" and "Michael Clayton" have each done around $48 million. And "There Will Be Blood" has taken in around $32 million.

Between them, that's roughly $314 million, which is only about 46 million admissions at the average national ticket price of $6.82. If everyone who bought a ticket to one of the best picture nominees were to tune in Oscar night the show would still not come close to the 55 million viewers who were watching in 1998 to see if "Titanic" would win best picture.

Of course, we're not going to see every single one of those 46 million ticket buyers tune in to watch this year's Oscarcast. If at least 40 million of them don't turn up, the ratings will be down from last year. In 2007 approximately 40 million viewers saw "The Departed" win. That was up slightly from the roughly 39 million viewers who saw "Crash" cash in a year earlier.

What accounts for Oscar's sagging numbers is the disconnect between the films that Academy members nominate and the pictures that civilian moviegoers pay money to see. In recent years awards voters of all sorts -- not just Oscar voters -- have made it clear that the type of films they want to celebrate as Hollywood's best are no longer the commercial mainstream pictures that for many years were the film industry's bread and butter. There's a new definition of "awards worthy" and it no longer seems to apply to the movies that most members of the Academy actually work on.

Ironically, it's movie critics across the country who for several years now have been calling the shots in terms of what movies wind up getting into the best picture Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe races. Films that resonate with the critics in their own best picture votes in early December are the ones that wind up being considered for all the leading awards competitions. Movies that the critics dislike or ignore because they they're too commercial no longer stand a chance of becoming best picture Oscar nominees.

The critics' power to shape the Oscar race is impressive considering that consumer media movie critics are, themselves, losing influence. Newspapers have responded to their falling circulation numbers by trimming newsroom staffs and some well-established movie critics have been part of those cut-backs. Hollywood marketers have known for years that what the critics say or write has very little to do with how many tickets are sold to mainstream commercial movies. Where the critics' support does prove to be valuable is in the specialized films arena for titles that hope to compete for awards.

Because there now are so many critics associations in major cities and regions of the U.S., there's a nonstop flood of awards by these groups starting in early December. Given the shared mindset of the people who belong to these groups, they tend to establish a handful of films as leading awards contenders at exactly the time of year when Academy members are starting to cope with the fact that they've got to make nominations a few weeks later and haven't seen most of the movies yet.

These critics groups awards also impact on distributors, who use them to make decisions about what titles to support with marketing money. Films that are resonating with the critics are much more likely to get awards marketing support than titles that aren't generating solid critical enthusiasm.

By mid-December the critics' lists have made their headlines and a few titles have emerged as frontrunners. At that point the Golden Globe nominations surface and, typically, many of the same films have also resonated with the journalists who are members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. Academy members absorb the media coverage of all these awards and nominations and create for themselves a shortlist of movies to see before they send in their nominations ballots. This preselection process is driven by critical applause and, in effect, excludes from consideration films that don't have the critics' support -- i.e., mainstream commercial movies.

Although it feels like this has been going on for years, it's only in the last three years that specialized product has totally dominated Oscar's best picture race. In the past, most of the nominees were major studio titles made by mainstream filmmakers. Things began changing in 1989 when Jim Sheridan's drama "My Left Foot" received a best picture nod. The aggressive marketing campaign mounted at the time by Miramax and its co-chairman Harvey Weinstein put "Foot" into the Oscar race when the odds were against small independent films being nominated. Although "Foot" didn't win best picture, Daniel Day Lewis won best actor and Brenda Fricker won best supporting actress. The film's real Oscar legacy was the reference that developed in subsequent years to there being a "My Left Foot" fifth slot in the best picture race that was there to be filled by similar well made small independent films.

We can see how much times have changed on the Oscar nominations front by looking at the best picture nominees in 1989. "Foot" was the only independent movie that was nominated. The other four nominees were major studio releases -- Universal's "Born on the Fourth of July," directed by Oliver Stone and starring Tom Cruise; Disney's "Dead Poets Society," directed by Peter Weir and starring Robin Williams; Universal's "Field of Dreams," directed by Phil Alden Robinson and starring Kevin Costner; and Warner Bros.' "Driving Miss Daisy," directed by Bruce Beresford and starring Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy, which won. "Foot" was a small film that had only played in limited release, but the other nominees were all wide releases with big stars. They're exactly the kind of movies that no longer get into the best picture race.

By 1997 it wasn't unusual to find specialized films in the best picture race. There were two indies: Fox Searchlight's "The Full Monty" and Miramax's "Good Will Hunting." But the majors still led with three titles: Columbia's "As Good as It Gets," Warner Bros.' "L.A. Confidential" and Paramount and Fox's "Titanic," which won. If these films were up for consideration today, "L.A. Confidential" would get nominated, but the others would have trouble getting into the race. "Monty" and "Hunting" aren't as arty as critics groups prefer today. Mainstream comedies like "As Good" aren't Oscar's cup of tea anymore. Frankly, "Titanic" might face choppy Oscar waters if it sailed into theaters now. Its 82% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.com would certainly be in its favor, but it could be tainted in today's awards environment by its strong popular appeal.

The same indie-major split prevailed in 1998. The two specialized nominees were: Miramax's "Shakespeare in Love," which won, and Miramax's "Life Is Beautiful." The three big studio nominees were: Universal's "Elizabeth," DreamWorks and Paramount's "Saving Private Ryan" and 20th Century Fox's "The Thin Red Line." "Shakespeare" and "Ryan" would get nominated today, but it's doubtful that the others would.

1999 saw only one indie nominee: Miramax's "The Cider House Rules." There were four major studio titles in the best picture race: DreamWorks' "American Beauty," which won; Warner Bros.' "The Green Mile;" Disney's "The Insider;" and Disney's "The Sixth Sense." In today's Oscar climate, it's hard to believe that any of these films other than "Beauty" would be nominated. In particular, a hit thriller like "Sixth" would an unlikely nominee.

In 2000 there were three specialized nominees and two major studio titles. The indies were: Miramax's "Chocolat;" Sony Pictures Classics' "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon;" and USA Films' "Traffic." The studio films were: DreamWorks and Universal's "Gladiator," which won; and Universal's "Erin Brockovich." If these films were competing today, it's hard to believe there would be nominations for anything other than "Traffic" and "Tiger." A soft art house film like "Chocolat" without strong critical support -- it only has a 62% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.com -- would have trouble landing a nom these days.

The 2001 nominees included two specialized titles and three studio films. The indies were: USA Films' "Gosford Park" and Miramax's "In the Bedroom." The commercial releases were: Universal and Imagine Entertainment's "A Beautiful Mind," which won; New Line's "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring;" and Fox's "Moulin Rouge." The big difference here is that all five of these movies would stand a very good chance of being nominated in today's critics-driven artistic-based awards marketplace. With this group of nominees we're starting to see the emergence of today's standards for getting into the best picture race.

In 2002 independent films were looking stronger with three indies and only two studio titles. The indies were: Miramax's "Chicago," which won; Miramax and Initial Entertainment Group's "Gangs of New York;" and Focus Features' 'The Pianist." The majors were represented by: Paramount's "The Hours;" and New Line's "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers." In today's awards climate all of these films also look like they'd have a good shot at being nominated.

2003 was the last year in which the major studios dominated the best picture Oscar race. Four commercial films were nominated: New Line's "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," which won; Fox's "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World;" Warner Bros.' "Mystic River;" and Universal's "Seabiscuit." The only indie nominee was Focus Features' "Lost in Translation." If these titles came along today, "King," "River" and "Translation" would be likely nominees, but "Master" and "Seabiscuit" would risk being snubbed for being too mainstream in their appeal.

It was in 2004 that the Academy moved the Oscars from late March to late February, shortening the window in which members see films and make nominations. The move clearly worked in favor of specialized films, which accounted for three of that year's five nods. The indies were: Miramax and Warner Bros.' "The Aviator;" Miramax's "Finding Neverland;" and Fox Searchlight's "Sideways." The studio releases were: Warner Bros. and Lakeshore Entertainment's "Million Dollar Baby," which won; and Universal's "Ray." If the voting were today, a mainstream biographical drama like "Ray" would probably have a tougher time getting nominated than it did in '04. The rest of that year's nominees would probably still get into the race.

By 2005 the best picture race boasted even more specialized product. There were four indie films: Lionsgate's "Crash," which won; Focus Features' "Brokeback Mountain;" Sony Pictures Classics' "Capote;" and Warner Independent Pictures' "Good Night, and Good Luck." The only studio film was DreamWorks and Universal's "Munich," which could easily have been mistaken for a specialized film if it hadn't been directed by Steven Spielberg. All five of these films would be likely nominees in today's marketplace.

The 2006 best picture nods went to three specialized titles and two studio releases. The indies were: Paramount Vantage's "Babel;" Miramax's "The Queen;" and Fox Searchlight's "Little Miss Sunshine." The two studio films were: Warner Bros. and Initial Entertainment Group's "The Departed," which won; and Paramount, DreamWorks and Warner Bros.' "Letters From Iwo Jima," which was really more of a specialized film than anything else. Here, too, all five films would have a good shot at being nominated by today's voters.

And that brings us to the current crop of best picture nominees, all of which I enjoyed and would be happy to see win. This time around there are four specialized releases: Focus Features' "Atonement;" Fox Searchlight's "Juno;" Miramax and Paramount Vantage's "No Country for Old Men;" and Paramount Vantage and Miramax's "There Will Be Blood." The only major studio nominee is Warner Bros.' "Michael Clayton," which actually was financed independently.

Although "No Country" is clearly the favorite to win given its strong showing in other key contests -- especially in votes by the Directors Guild of America, the Producers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild -- it's entirely possible that it could wind up splitting votes with "Blood," the other critically acclaimed serious drama in the race. If that were to happen and the two dramas canceled each other out mathematically, there are various theories as to which of the three other titles would stand the best chance of prevailing.

There are those who envision a "Juno" victory, driven by its boxoffice success, its now high-profile star (Ellen Page) and screenwriter (Diablo Cody) and its life affirming spirit at a time when people are depressed by the sorry state of the world and the economy. But in order to win "Juno" would have to overcome the Academy's traditional lack of enthusiasm for comedies, however well made they are. That's something that critically acclaimed films like "Sideways" and "Little Miss Sunshine" weren't able to do. "Juno" will either join that very respectable group or become the little comedy that finally got Academy members to crack a smile while voting.

Some insiders see "Atonement" as the film that would benefit from a voting split that knocks out "No Country" and "Blood." Although "Atonement" didn't resonate with the critics groups and didn't land the lead acting, directing and film editing Oscar nods that usually translate into a best picture win, it did capture best picture in the Golden Globes and BAFTA races. "Atonement" could benefit from being the kind of sweeping period piece epic romantic drama that Academy members traditionally like and have celebrated in the past. It certainly looks like the kind of important picture that Oscar voters are said to have in mind when they select a film to represent the industry's best work that year.

Lastly, "Michael Clayton" could emerge victorious, driven by George Clooney's blazing star power and its strong supporting performances by Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton, who are Oscar nominated, and also by Sydney Pollack, who's wonderful in the movie and should have received a supporting actor nod. While it has a best director nom for Tony Gilroy, it's not a film editing nominee as "No Country" and "Blood" are. Since it's the only major studio entry, anyone who's voting on that basis has nowhere else to go this year.

In any event, whichever of the five nominees walks off with top honors Sunday night, the best picture Oscar will have wound up in very good and deserving hands.

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Oct. 19, 1990's column: "The concept of shelf space and its applications to film distribution became popular when Coca-Cola owned Columbia and Tri-Star.

"Coke understood that a soft drink company could dominate supermarket shelves by marketing many colas -- like Coke, Classic Coke, Diet Coke, Cherry Coke and Tab -- rather than just one brand. If that was true, then why shouldn't a film company release a large volume of movies through a number of distribution subsidiaries and in that way dominate the industry by having a larger share of available screens?

"Coke had a good idea, but for much of the time that it owned Columbia and Tri-Star the studios were dormant. Since Sony's acquisition of Columbia Pictures Entertainment, however, the company's shelf space has greatly increased. In fact, last weekend CPE led all other distributors in terms of its percentage of theatrical shelf space...

"Last weekend CPE had 11 titles playing on 5,361 screens. That's a healthy 21.8% share of the 24,563 screens that were playing current or vintage product from either the majors or the most active independent, New Line Cinema..."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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