Oscars to gild lily of ship pic

Big boat doesn't need help drumming up business

“Titanic” emerged from the 70th Academy Awards with wins in 11 Oscar categories, receiving a record 20 individual trophies, surpassing the 16 earned by “Ben-Hur.”

In a strange sort of way, the James Cameron period epic needed the armada of awards to give credence to the worldwide mania for the picture. It certainly didn’t need the awards to bolster its commercial prospects pre- or post-Oscar night.

The picture sailed into the Shrine Auditorium with $1.24 billion in worldwide B.O. and appears certain to climb to at least $1.4 billion, a staggering $500 million more than the previous record holder, “Jurassic Park.”

Seven features, including the foreign-language winner, shared the Oscar wealth — tying the 1981 record for fewest pictures honored in a single year by the Academy.

The movies that really needed the sort of boost the prize can provide were also-rans.

Robert Duvall’s performance in “The Apostle” was passed over in the best actor category, and such dark horse prospects as “Wag the Dog,” “Afterglow,” “Mrs. Brown” and “The Sweet Hereafter” go into the record books as being there, just not at the podium.

The biggest beneficiary by far on Monday was the Dutch foreign-language winner, “Character,” a critical fave at Cannes and elsewhere but until Monday night considered a dubious commercial prospect. To date, the period drama has only played in Holland and Belgium and will open on a limited basis in the U.S. on Friday.

“Character” quite simply would not have received an American sale to Sony Classics were the picture not the talk of Academy screenings.

The U.S. sale (and now the Oscar) will cement pending deals in several major territories for guarantees much higher than when the film was on offer at Cannes almost one year ago.

Originally, another Dutch film had been selected as the country’s Oscar submission, but its filmmakers declined the honor, informing the local committee that Mike van Diem’s film was a more appropriate choice. As if to prove one’s never a hero at home, the Dutch press criticized the selfless move, informing the public that Academy members would never embrace such a dark-themed tale as “Character.”

Though “L.A. Confidential” received two awards and “The Full Monty” one statuette, both pictures have seen their biggest assist from nominations.

“Confidential,” has struggled to a $100 million global gross largely thanks to Oscar attention. Initially considered a disappointment, year-end critical prizes and nine nominations kept it afloat. It has yet to debut in Japan, where another Oscar-winner without obvious appeal, “Schindler’s List,” had one of its best foreign engagements.

“Monty” has amassed roughly $225 million at the worldwide box office and is a bonafide hit with or without statuettes.

The two Oscars won by “As Good as It Gets” and the two won by “Good Will Hunting” will promptly be incorporated into both pictures’ ad campaigns. Each has topped $100 million domestically and should receive small B.O. boosts in the next week. But they stand to benefit the most internationally, where each is in the initial stage of release.

“As Good as It Gets” already has the draw of a movie star in Jack Nicholson. In many ways, the picture mirrors last year’s “Jerry Maguire,” also produced by James L. Brooks with a movie star, some Oscar recognition and initial overseas release in the spring. “Maguire,” with Tom Cruise, grossed a little more than $100 million outside the U.S. and the Nicholson-Helen Hunt Oscar combo should better that mark.

“Good Will Hunting” also has a recognizable star (and now an Oscar-winner) in Robin Williams. In a pack of Oscar pics least likely to receive much gross growth, “Hunting” will marginally aided by its prizes in foreign territories.

Its young actor-writer winners, however, will receive the biggest pay hikes of any of the 1998 Oscar recipients and will unquestionably receive pressure to come up with an idea for a sequel.

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