H'w'd changes boffo B.O. into Oscar gold

HOLLYWOOD — Everybody knows that a film’s grosses are boosted by a best-picture Academy Award nomination or win. But does the process work in reverse? What impact does a film’s financial success have on its chances for the top award? As Donald Sutherland advised in 1991 nominee “JFK”: “Follow the money.”

Certainly, IFC is hoping for a big fat Greek honeymoon at Oscar time, and Disney is looking for “Signs” of Academy gold now that its $200 million-plus hit is getting kudos attention.

Popular light comedies and thrillers have earned nominations in the past for one simple reason: Academy members vote for films they’ve seen. Thus, a popular film often has a better chance of getting votes than a little-seen critical favorite.

Besides greater awareness, a box office champ has the advantage of greater availability. Voters have had months to leave the house on a whim to check out “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” or “Signs.” But when a film folds after a couple of weeks, it may be forgotten by the time the screener arrives.

Industry analyst and president of Exhibitor Relations Paul Dergarabedian notes that financial success by no means ensures Oscar gold. “To reward a moneymaker just for its popularity would de-legitimize the whole process. The Academy would be embarrassed to present to the public a Carrot Top feature, no matter how much money it made. And that’s never going to happen.

“The general public expects a lot more in terms of cachet, and the voters know that. All of the nominees have to live up to a certain standard of quality.”

The Academy has a reputation for preferring “prestige” pics, but that’s not always the case. In past years, such anticipated contenders as “The Crucible,” “Amistad” and “Beloved” faded to oblivion by nomination time.

When a monster hit like “Forrest Gump” (1994) or “Titanic” (1997) strikes a chord among audiences, its winning often has an air of inevitability. But it’s not that Academy voters want to reward a film for its big grosses; instead, voters simply reflect popular opinion. The public likes it and voters like it too.

Over the last five years, just five out of 25 picture nominees had grossed less than $25 million at nomination time, while the average take for pic contenders was $94 million.

Nine out of the last 10 picture races were won by either the highest- or second-highest-grossing picture of the five.

Jim Gianopulos, chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment, points out that “the Oscars typically don’t go to the highest box office film. They go to the films where the nature of the work, the quality of the work, the amount of risk taken, and the amount of originality and uniqueness break through.”

What does all of this bode for 2002? Each year, the winning film often has a combination of popularity, critical support and gravitas that marks a true front-runner.

So far, all of this is a question mark, since many of the serious year-end contenders have yet to open, so there’s no word on reviews and box office.

There’s one year-end opener that seems guaranteed of a box office windfall and has already received a rave review in Variety: “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.” However, that pic has a unique challenge: persuading voters to judge it on its own merits, and not consider it an attachment to the first film (which earned 13 nominations and four wins).

Every Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences member nominates five films for picture, in order of preference, one can imagine a scenario in which voters’ top slots are divided among many strong contenders with none a clear favorite.

One Academy member asserts, “I never think about box office.” However, the voter admits that it’s a wide-open race, since many films have earned their champions. “And if your own favorite isn’t up there, or two good pictures are up against each other and they split, then yeah, a dark horse might slip in there.”

So when the final accounting is over, it shouldn’t be a surprise when some popular films make the cut and are considered “surprise” additions to the list.

A film’s outstanding box office means that people liked the picture. “And the voters,” Dergarabedian reminds us, “are people, too.”

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