Studios' Oscar snub won't change things


It could have been the year of the studios.
Coming into the season, almost every one of the big boys had at least one title with high Oscar hopes. And a number of the specialty divisions, bloodied and on the ropes, were reeling from some devastating blows.

And yet when all the prizes were handed out at the Kodak on Sunday night, a remarkable thing happened: Outside of Heath Ledger's supporting actor win and the animated kudo for "Wall-E," studios were shut out of above-the-line categories.

Specialty outfit Focus and indie the Weinstein Co. enjoyed a solid night, each picking up a pair of trophies. And uber-specialty division Fox Searchlight scored eight prizes, all for its breakout phenom "Slumdog Millionaire."

Every year, studios say they're getting out of the Oscar business. This year, if they peddled that idea, no one was buying: Fox had its Baz Luhrmann extravaganza "Australia." Sony had its Will Smith hopeful "Seven Pounds." Both fizzled. Paramount did better with its entry, but despite landing a baker's dozen of noms, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" scored just three below-the-line wins.

Universal had two contenders in "Changeling" and "Frost/Nixon" but only got minimal traction for each. And Warners, which had a couple of hopefuls in "The Dark Knight" and "Gran Torino," wound up with just two Oscars -- Ledger's and a sound editing prize.

But what, if anything, will all this change?

Even with the strong showing by the boutique units, it's unlikely that studios will increase their specialty presences. If anything, many of these divisions are on the cusp of more uncertainty. The Disney-Miramax relationship is potentially in a state of flux as Disney and DreamWorks begin their distribution arrangement. Other companies are contending with their own variables.

But if the specialty units face a murky future, the converse isn't necessarily true: The studios are not likely to invest more heavily in the awards game.

Awards in many cases have shown to bring only a minimal boxoffice bounce; best picture nominees "The Reader" and "Frost/Nixon," for example, have not been minting money. In fact, fall movies with awards potential that were snubbed by Academy voters tend to be doing just fine. Exhibit A is "Torino," a breakout success at the boxoffice despite no Oscar noms. Money and awards, increasingly, are not correlated.

And studios, more than ever in these tricky fiscal times, are in the business of making money. That leaves something of a void.

So with the studios pulling back on prestige movies and the specialty units shrinking, more awards movies probably will follow the "Slumdog" model: They'll come out of left field -- and not through a typical Hollywood channel.

Backstage after his picture dominated the Oscars, "Slumdog" producer Christian Colson urged studios to take risks on unconventional fare.

"Even the studios will take note that we made this for £7 million and it's about to cross $100 million in the U.S.," he said. "That's good business for them. It really is. Hopefully this means that the great scripts that don't tick all the boxes can get made."

As the season -- and this column, which has been great fun to do -- wind down, I'd like to hope Colson's message is widely heeded. My more pessimistic side, however, is left to wonder.