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Oscar’s Gold Standards

It’s now just a sprint to the finals in the annual Oscar derby. The big prize on March 27 – when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences presents its awards – should once again translate into $100 million for the film selected as best picture of the year: That’s the conservative estimate for additional revenues that accrue to the winner from B.O. and ancillary sales.

Marketing, reviews and word of mouth can have palpable effect on a picture’s box office. However, nothing compares to Oscar in terms of boosting the gross in the domestic and international marketplaces. In the minds of the world’s filmgoers, the Academy Awards are the officially sanctioned championship game.

In the next six weeks, millions will be shelled out by people anxious to see pix honored with Oscar nominations. Millions more have already been counted based on the anticipation of Academy glory.

The abiding feeling within the industry is that Oscar movies are generally commercial underachievers and that popular films rarely reap the benefits of Academy attention. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

Since “The Godfather” redefined the blockbuster in 1972, four films have emerged with both the top domestic B.O. and the best picture Oscar for the year – “The Godfather,” “Rocky” in 1976, “Kramer vs. Kramer” in 1979 and “Rain Man” in 1988. In the past decade, virtually all best picture winners have grossed more than $100 million in the North American market – none was a box office dud – and most have done even better in foreign release.

The chicken-and-egg question is, which came first: The popularity or the award?

Films such as “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Unforgiven” and “Dances With Wolves” were commercial winners long before the prospect of Oscars popped into the picture. “Platoon,” “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Schindler’s List” were also well on their way to big B.O. before they had secured nominations.

The commercial momentum to be garnered from awards (or the prospect of honors) can stretch from late September through mid-April. Only the summer blockbusters interrupt the extremely large window of opportunity for upscale, popular pictures. Their season is longer than football, basketball and, obviously in this year, baseball or hockey.

Shortly after Labor Day, the viewing public begins to see the map dotted with likely nominees; critics begin to punctuate their reviews with tips on prospective Oscar candidates. By December, the first signals appear, as critics’ orgs anoint their winners and the Golden Globes nominations come out. The Academy slate arrives in mid-February and the presentation occurs in late March.

So, there is a season, with Oscar night a Super Bowl of sorts. Earlier events can be viewed as semi-and quarterfinal games. In order to follow it through to the end, one has to be an engaged viewer.

Millions of movie fans are glued to their TV screens, no less rabid than their sporting cousins. The literal menu may differ, but the knowledge of the players tends to be equally fierce and loyal.

From Alsace to New Zealand, the “Gumpsters” and “Pulpsters” will be on guard March 27 to see if their team walks away with the cup. And just to ensure that there are no surprises, many will prepare by taking in “Quiz Show” or “The Shawshank Redemption” or any potential winner that had been missed during the early part of the season. Oscar succeeds because billions know the pictures and have developed keen rooting interests.

The Academy Awards are also a bit like the Miss America contest. The winner gets the tiara and the roses, but there’s room for runners-up and Miss Congeniality.

The perception of a dichotomy between art and box office reached new heights this year with “Forrest Gump.” The film turned out to be that rare bird that begins as a long shot and overcomes all obstacles to become a B.O. behemoth. It’s also a rarity because Oscar front-runners almost never debut pre-Labor Day (“Gump” opened July 6). Some would view that as a virtual technical foul in this sport.

Others have forgotten that the picture began life as an underdog: It was one of the few “adult” pix of the summer, and looked likely to get creamed by the seasonal blockbusters. Now, $500 million later, it’s been redefined as a darling of the Hollywood system.

During the summer, some suggested the American saga was the Oscar front-runner – however, they said it with the tacit understanding that something would come along to challenge its pre-season eminence. The contenders arrived and stumbled, and the underdog became undisputed top dog, which may account for any “Gump” backlash in the media.

Another reason for the negative spin may be just plain boredom. The inevitability of a boxful of statuettes for the pic makes for pretty dull reportage.

Traditionally, interest in the Oscars is fueled by close contests or the prospect of seeing a movie star receive long-delayed recognition. In recent years, Oscarcasts have gained added emotion from first-time (and overdue) laurels to Al Pacino, Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg, or from the lack of a clear front-runner (as in 1992, when “Bugsy,” “Prince of Tides,” “JFK” and “Beauty and the Beast” were ultimately swallowed whole by “The Silence of the Lambs”).

While this year’s slate is impressive in the quality of work, there really isn’t a sentimental long shot among the candidates.

The seemingly predictable scenario for the 67th Academy Awards may also be the reason that its biggest headlines have been for errors and omissions.

The battle over the Swissness of “Red,” the debate of the small-screen vs. big-screen status of “The Last Seduction” and the assumed snub of documentary “Hoop Dreams” have all addressed the validity of AMPAS’ right to use the adjective “best” before its category names.

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