Saturday, February 26, 2005

The Other Side of Oscar



For the rest of the world, the Oscars are a magical night filled with entertainment superstars - the closest Hollywood gets to its wistfully-remembered glamourous earlier years. But living in Los Angeles, you see the other side of the Oscars. The business of Oscar. The politics of Oscar. The overkill of Oscar.

Oscar is important to Hollywood for one reason: money. Yes, there's the "prestige" associated with winning an Academy Award, but not for the suits that run the industry.

The Oscars have always been a multi-hour commercial for Hollywood, publicity the networks pay to air, but today that's true to an even larger degree. The biggest movies of 2004, in terms of box office receipts (which is the industry measuring stick) are not going to be talked about much on Sunday night. Spiderman 2 is not up for best picture, nor is The Passion of the Christ.

The movies that will be getting air time -- Sideways, Hotel Rwanda, and Million Dollar Baby, among others -- are not of the blockbuster mold. No, these are different kind of movies. Movies that Hollywood doesn't know how to sell. Clint Eastwood as an aging boxing trainer and Hilary Swank as a wannabe female pugilist? How, the marketing department asks, do we sell that to 13 year-olds in Peoria?

And so the major Hollywood studios have turned to using the Oscars to sell these kinds of movies -- movies that would otherwise have gotten little attention (read: promotion). An Oscar win is worth millions of extra dollars at the box office and in DVD sales.

Most people don't realize that companies like Miramax, Focus Features, and Fox Searchlight are actually divisions of larger studios like Disney, Universal, and 20th Century Fox, respectively. And when a cheap, artsy film is financially successful, those profits can subsidize a studio's losses on a big budget turkey like, say, Gigli. Which is why the Oscars are a big deal to Hollywood. Yes, the prestige of winning an Academy Award is nice, but what that does to the bottom line is more important. Because keeping your job in this industry isn't predicated on how many Oscars you have on your shelf but by how much money you make.

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