Oscars: How the Winning Films Could Impact Executives

Oscar Mountain - H 2016
Illustration by Lars Leetaru

With the studios' futures increasingly fraught, a well-timed Oscar win for Warner Bros. ('Mad Max'), Paramount ('The Big Short') or Fox ('Revenant,' 'The Martian') could reset a whole new narrative for its execs as credit gets grabbed.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

For most of this year's Oscar contenders, campaigning will end Feb. 28, the day of the 88th Academy Awards. But behind many studios' fortress-like walls, the campaign is just beginning, as executives jostle for credit on the winning pictures.

That's because Oscar can go a long way toward redeeming a career or giving a boost to execs whose good luck has dried up and whose movies haven't performed at the box office. Rarely has that been truer than now, when several studios with serious Oscar contenders are in turmoil, their regimes facing upheaval or threats to their very existence.

"It's not a life-saver, but it's nice to have," says one producer with deep ties to Warner Bros. "If you're Courtenay Valenti or Sue Kroll, and Mad Max: Fury Road wins, you're validated for having believed in it for a long time, against a lot of skepticism."

Valenti is Warners' veteran executive vp production (and daughter of late MPAA chief Jack Valenti), who worked closely with Fury Road director George Miller; Kroll is the studio's worldwide marketing and distribution president. "In [Kroll's] case," the producer adds, "she found a fresh way to sell something that may have been difficult to do."

If Fury Road wins best picture, it would be a huge shot in the arm for both execs, not to mention the rest of Warners' leadership, who've been pounded by a series of flops in 2015, from Pan to In the Heart of the Sea and Point Break. It would remind the industry that marketers shouldn't always be the first to get the blame when pictures don't deliver and also set the scene for Warners CEO Kevin Tsujihara's ambitious 2016 slate.

Similarly, New Regency chairman Arnon Milchan will get a major succes d'estime after co-financing not one, but two best picture nominees, The Revenant and The Big Short, right after backing Oscar winners 12 Years a Slave and Birdman. "Neither was developed by Regency, but Arnon gets credit for being the patron," notes the Warners-linked producer. "He's in the Megan Ellison realm: They are high-end art collectors. In ways that only they can do, they're enabling works to exist that otherwise defy the conventional wisdom."

Who knows if Milchan actually will make any money from these pictures (Revenant's bloated budget may well prevent that), but the timing could not be better for the jet-setting financier, who's still reeling from revelations about his former arms dealing and work as an Israeli spy.

Over at Paramount, marketing and distribution chief Megan Colligan should demand a bonus if Big Short wins after her decision to yank it from 2016 and drop it into the current awards season. That clever move not only helped it at the box office, but lifted it to the top of the Oscar race, where it now shares frontrunner status with Revenant and Spotlight.

The timing's not bad for Colligan, either, now that Viacom is spinning in a vortex following 92-year-old Sumner Redstone's exit as executive chairman, with his daughter, Shari, at war with the company's leader. Studio chairman Brad Grey also could have something to brag about after he got egg on his face for letting 12 Years slip from his grip and go to Fox Searchlight. (Insiders claimed he was never shown the project.)

But where the kudos stakes become really intriguing is away from the front lines.

Will Colligan's former Paramount colleague Brad Weston, now president and CEO of New Regency Productions, also get some spill-over credit for his ties to The Revenant? Maybe. But there's more sympathy due to the fact that he was stuck with a production riddled with woes and unable to do much about it. "They were just holding on for dear life and white-knuckling it with [director Alejandro G.] Inarritu," says one studio insider, "and pumping in money as the weather kept the film hopscotching over the world."

Similarly, will Warners' president of creative development and worldwide production, Greg Silverman, benefit if Fury Road wins the ultimate Oscar? Don't bet on it: The movie was in development for many years and began production in June 2012, a year before he was named to the studio's ruling triumvirate.

Most industry veterans agree that the halo effect can only help so much. Even more than producers, who often are surprised to find out how little an Oscar pumps up their careers, executives largely get ignored for their award winners. That's partly because success has many fathers, all coming out of the woodwork to grab a piece of the credit, and because the execs have to shoulder the blame for their inevitable flops.

The biggest victors in this year's race may well be those who have fielded multiple awards movies — like Fox chairman Jim Gianopulos (with best picture nominees The Revenant, The Martian and Brooklyn) — rather than those who win a statuette for just one. Whatever the results on Feb. 28, Gianopulos finally can lay to rest any claims that his former partner Tom Rothman was the only one with greenlight savvy.

In ordinary times, promotions or pay raises would follow on the heels of the Oscar, but even that seems questionable this year, when studios are fighting for their lives. Paramount is stressed about becoming a pawn in the battle over Viacom, and even Fox is coming off a weak run, counting more on Deadpool than Revenant to boost its regime. As for Warners, its execs need a new franchise a heck of a lot more than an Oscar.

"If it's a studio that's hemorrhaging money, a critical win, as discerned from any sort of financial win, doesn't save you," says one studio insider. "Warners may be in that position. There's so much blood to sop up that Mad Max is just a drop less in the bucket."