The Oscars won’t just determine the future of individual winners and losers this year. They could also have a real impact on the future of specialty-film distributors. After stealing the luster from studios when it comes to the awards, they’re now fighting for their lives in a radically changing media landscape, with streaming giants Netflix and Amazon threatening to gobble up the talent they’ve relied on to make a splash in awards season.
Such studio subsidiaries as Fox Searchlight, Universal’s Focus Features and Sony Pictures Classics were set up in the 1990s with three goals: (1) develop the kind of filmmakers who could then be assigned bigger-budget films; (2) win back some of the box-office gold that had been siphoned away by indie challengers like Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax Films, which defined the game in the ‘90s; and (3) add a touch of class to an otherwise crass business.
None of these factors matters much today. With directors like Colin Trevorrow going straight from shoestring releases (Safety Not Guaranteed) to blockbusters (Jurassic World), the specialty divisions no longer function as breeding grounds for filmmakers; with corporations such as Disney aiming bigger and bigger in terms of theme parks and merchandising, as well as box office, there’s little need for the paltry sums most Oscar winners bring; and with the studios led by corporate players increasingly removed from the day-to-day filmmaking process, Oscar’s sheen has become all but irrelevant to the bottom line.
Under pressure for their survival, the specialty labels need every bit of help they can get, and so do their art house rivals. Each is playing for high stakes:
With the two frontrunners for best picture (The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), Searchlight, led by longtime heads Stephen Gilula and Nancy Utley, has proved its uncanny eye for promising material. But will that matter once Disney absorbs Fox? In terms of box office, no. Shape has earned $55 million worldwide and Billboards $75 million, but those hits have to be balanced against such flops as Battle of the Sexes, with its $12.6 million to date. On the other hand, Disney’s planned streaming service will need high-visibility content, and Oscar wins (along with the box-office boost they bring) could provide a healthy rationale for not just retaining Searchlight but bolstering its resources.
Two years ago, after experimenting with genre movies with middling success, Focus underwent a course correction under then-new chairman Peter Kujawski, who promised to return Focus to its prestige-label roots. It bounced back this season with Darkest Hour ($46.4 million at the domestic box office, more than $100 million overall). An Oscar for Gary Oldman could add further lucre and counterbalance the financial disappointment of The Beguiled and The Book of Henry.
SONY PICTURES CLASSICS
Amid the ups and downs of their rivals, the veteran duo of Tom Bernard and Michael Barker has maintained a remarkably consistent course, relying on shrewd acquisitions rather than sinking money in pricey productions. They enter the Oscars with six nominations: four for Call Me by Your Name and two for foreign-language nominees Loveless and A Fantastic Woman. With parent Sony Pictures Entertainment looking like a prime target for acquisition by an internet giant, especially after Kaz Hirai’s departure as CEO, they’ll need to prove that their modest returns have added dividends.
Megan Ellison’s stand-alone indie, which has gone from financing films to distributing them, had a box-office dud in Detroit (a non-contender this awards season). But even though it declined to finance Phantom Thread itself, it produced the film for Focus. Should the movie prove an unlikely best picture or best actor winner, that would burnish the credentials of the self-financed company and perhaps help it lure still more A-list talent away from burgeoning Amazon and Netflix.
Post-Moonlight, the producer-distributor, founded by Daniel Katz, David Fenkel and John Hodges, is seeking to maintain momentum as the hippest indie label around with awards for Lady Bird. It might need them given that The Florida Project was shut out of the best picture race and The Disaster Artist‘s James Franco was snubbed amid an avalanche of allegations about his past.
Launched early last year by Tom Quinn and Tim League, the company is eager to prove itself as the hot new kid on the block and, along with 30West, is betting on I, Tonya, which has earned more than $20 million and multiple awards for Allison Janney. Having gone on an acquisition spree at Sundance — its $10 million buy of Assassination Nation was the fest’s biggest deal — Neon could do with an Oscar victory to prove it’s in the same class as its more established rivals.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.