Studios make comeback in quest for Oscar gold

If 1996 was the year of the independent — with such films as “Fargo,” “Secrets & Lies,” “Shine” and eventual winner “The English Patient” vying for the Academy’s top honor — then 2003 is shaping up as the year the conglomerates are reclaiming their dominance in the Oscar race.

In the wake of the Golden Globes nominations, bigger appears to be better, at least in the Globes’ drama category, which often mirrors the Academy’s tastes in choosing best picture more than any org save for the Producers Guild of America.

“Overall achievement of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy is so immense that it looks like it was produced by the biggest studio ever made,” says film historian and author David Thomson (“The New Biographical Dictionary of Film”) about New Line’s entry in the picture race. “And I know (‘Cold Mountain’ writer-director) Anthony Minghella, if a little ironically, was always mindful of (comparisons to) ‘Gone With the Wind.’ ”

Indeed, this year the heavy hitters are characterized by hefty budgets, A-list stars and/or epic scale. Although “Mystic River,” which Warner Bros. would only say was made for under $40 million but higher than $25 million — a paltry sum compared with its studio brethren — the film hails from a bona fide major and boasts a dream cast headed by actor’s actor Sean Penn.

At the other end of the spectrum, Warners is touting “The Last Samurai,” with B.O. top gun Tom Cruise and a pricetag that has been speculated to be as high as $135 million-$150 million range, although Warners refuses to comment on numbers.

These films are joined by fellow Globes nominees “Cold Mountain,” with Nicole Kidman and an $80 million pricetag care of Disney-owned Miramax; Universal’s $80 million “Seabiscuit,” with “Spider-Man” Tobey Maguire donning a jockey suit; the $135 million “Master and Commander,” with Russell Crowe, who’s been in the last three Oscar races; and the culmination of the mother of all trilogies, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” which cost roughly $300 million for the three films, according to New Line.

“Now the state of the industry is such that even a recent best picture winner which feels like a small movie,” says Damien Bona, who co-wrote “Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards” and is the sole author of “Inside Oscar 2.” ” ‘A Beautiful Mind’ represented a $60 million investment, meaning it’s no longer simple to define what qualifies as an epic, at least budgetwise.”

Like such predecessors as “Titanic” and “Braveheart,” some of these projects needed the backing of more than one studio: “Mystic” was joint financed by Warner partner Village Roadshow; “Seabiscuit” got an assist from DreamWorks; “Master” lists no less than four (ostensibly competing) major production companies among its donors including Miramax, Universal and Samuel Goldwyn Films; and “Rings” brings all the weight of the Time Warner empire to bear in its trip to bountiful box office and ancillary riches.

From “Wings” to “Ben-Hur” to “Lawrence of Arabia” to “Gladiator,” the Academy is invariably drawn to costly epics in which “show me the money” acts as a kind of visual mantra. Showing the money at the box office doesn’t hurt one’s best pic chances, either, as “Titanic,” “Gone With the Wind,” “Forrest Gump,” “Rocky” and “The Sting” have proved.

After its first weekend, “Return of the King” pulled in a record-breaking haul of $246 million worldwide, the kind of numbers that would deem the film a “winner” right out of the gate. “‘The Last Samurai’ is already slipping and might go the way of ‘Master and Commander,’ ” says Thomson of two epics with diminishing returns.

To be fair, recent historical epics have usually slept their way to box office and awards prominence as shown by “Gangs of New York,” “Braveheart” and “English Patient,” which all performed respectably at the turnstiles, but never crossed the $100 million mark domestically. But that didn’t hurt their Oscar chances. Ultimately, these pictures were considered big releases, by any measure.

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