Follow the money


In the Golden Age of Hollywood, awards races pitted one studio against another in a test of each fiefdom's grandeur. Today, they are the perfect microcosm for an increasingly complicated financial environment, where the lines between each studio are blurred, just as they are between the studios and the indies.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," arguably the front-runner for best picture (drama) at Sunday's Golden Globes. The movie has emerged as the greatest test yet of Paramount's ability to deliver a major awards contender under the regime of studio chairman Brad Grey. Right from the start, Grey pulled out all the stops to promote the picture, evident in a wealth of trade ads, billboards and full-page spreads in the Los Angeles Times. But does that mean its success will mark a sea change at the studio?

"I don't know that you can judge any one studio based on the success of one picture," says producer and former studio executive Adam Fields ("Donnie Darko"). "The real point is, as every studio has become a division of a corporate and global conglomerate, the distinctive personalities of studios have become blurred. With (former Miramax Films co-head) Harvey Weinstein, one of the great mavericks, his personality was all over the awards movies, but I don't feel that is true at the other studios anymore."

Certainly, that is the case with "Button," a joint venture between Paramount and Warner Bros. The project was first optioned by a third studio, Universal -- and not once but twice. "Universal Pictures purchased the film rights in the late '80s and again in 1995," according to a spokesman for Harold Ober Associates , licensor for the rights to the F. Scott Fitzgerald story on which the movie is based. "In both cases, the film was not made and the rights reverted to the author's estate."

Later, it went to Paramount, where it was in development for years, and was eventually made as part of a two-picture deal with Warners and director David Fincher, under which Paramount agreed to let Fincher helm the Warner-developed "Zodiac" first, then shoot "Button" immediately afterward. With Paramount handling domestic distribution and Warners taking international, the two will divide the kitty on a 50-50 basis.

Warners also played a role in the Fox Searchlight release "Slumdog Millionaire," one of "Button's" leading contenders in the best drama race. (Now that so many specialty divisions have been shuttered, the "Slumdog"/"Button" fight might well be the last front in the battle between the studios and the indie/specialty world that has dominated awards seasons for the past few years.) "Slumdog" was initially funded by an independent British production entity, Celador Films, which brought the book on which it is based, Vikas Swarup's "Q&A," to director Danny Boyle. It had preliminary conversations with Searchlight to acquire U.S. rights, but those ended up going to Warner Independent Pictures, which offered more money than Searchlight -- some $5 million.

That, of course, was before WIP closed its doors, effectively leaving "Slumdog" without a domestic distributor. Re-enter Searchlight, which took over domestic rights while sharing some of the profits with Warners, leaving the bulk of foreign territories in the hands of one of the leading indies, Pathe Intl.

Is "Slumdog" a Fox film or a Warners film or an indie? Is "Button" a Warners film or a Paramount film? And which one should loyalists root for?

"Whoever comes to you with the money is who you are loyal to," quips producer Steve Stabler, who in 2007 made "Mostly Ghostly" for Universal, which, in turn, licensed domestic television rights to Disney.

Loyalties become even more complicated when you look at a picture like "Revolutionary Road," which ties two studios that have now gone their separate ways, Paramount and DreamWorks. DreamWorks' Stacey Snider has long been credited -- and rightly so -- as a key backer of the movie, but it had been swirling around well before she came on board. BBC Films originally developed it as a passion project for Kate Winslet, who eventually reeled in producer Scott Rudin as well as her husband, director Sam Mendes.

Rudin got DreamWorks and Paramount Vantage to back the movie. Of course, as everyone now knows, Vantage, like Warner Independent, has also closed its doors. And DreamWorks itself uprooted and moved to Universal before the movie was released, leaving Rudin as the one consistent behind-the-scenes power.

Rudin himself is involved with two of the best drama nominees at Sunday's Globes. In addition to "Revolutionary Road," he also produced "The Reader," though he took his name off the latter after a falling-out with the Weinstein Co.'s Harvey Weinstein. Rudin's powerful presence this year, after he contended in last year's bauble battle with two more pictures, "There Will Be Blood" and "No Country for Old Men," is the best evidence for believing that the awards race is no longer a battle between the studios -- or even between the studios and the specialty labels -- so much as it is a battle between superproducers.

And rarely have superproducers been so much in evidence as at the current Globes.

This year's superproducers -- aside from Rudin -- include Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, the former heads of DreamWorks who produced "Benjamin Button"; and Imagine Entertainment's Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, the forces behind best drama nominee "Frost/Nixon" as well as another awards contender, "Changeling."

Add to the mix the London-based Working Title, led by Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan -- who were involved with both "Frost/Nixon" and Focus Features' "Burn After Reading" -- and it might reasonably be said that the heart of the awards race lies with these men and women, the true loci of power in today's Hollywood.