Studios need to rethink strategies

For the past few years, the studios’ niche divisions have dominated the Academy Awards. What would it take to see more studio-centric pics as Oscar contenders?

The solution is:

1) Studios should remember that big-canvas epics don’t have to be dumb CGI spectacles.

2) Studios must realize tentpole-type pics are cannibalizing each other (and, besides, they’re running out of sequels) and they need other “big” fare.

3) Academy voters need to shift their thinking.

Of course, the real answer is:

4) All of the above.

With a constant eye on quarterly earnings and an appetite to create four-quadrant movies, the studios have mastered f/x-heavy extravaganzas. It’s hard to argue with the success of “Spider-Man 3” or “Transformers,” but what happened to the big David Lean-type films that mixed brains and heart with scope? (One problem: There aren’t a lot of David Leans around any more.)

Summer tentpoles feed the studios’ bottom line, but few Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences voters are likely to posit “Pirates of the Caribbean 3” as best pic. So, once again, the niche divisions, with their quirky voices, stepped in and dominated the Oscar show.

Some at the studios think things could change in 2008. The majors — not their niche divisions — have lineups loaded with impressive talent that could be both artistic and popular.

Fox has “Australia,” from Baz Luhrmann and starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. Sony has “Seven Pounds,” reuniting Will Smith with Gabriele Muccino (who directed “The Pursuit of Happyness”). Paramount and Warner Bros. unite for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett under helmer David Fincher. DreamWorks has “The Soloist,” directed by Joe Wright and starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. and Paramount and DreamWorks share “Revolutionary Road” (Sam Mendes, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, and Scott Rudin). Par Vantage has “Defiance” (Ed Zwick, with Daniel Craig) and “The Duchess” (Keira Knightley).

Warner Bros. has an untitled pic from Ridley Scott, written by William Monahan (“The Departed”) and starring Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio; and Universal has two biggies from Imagine: Clint Eastwood’s “The Changeling” starring Angelina Jolie, and “Frost/Nixon” from Ron Howard.

A lot of projects look good on paper only to fizzle when finally realized. However, this represents the most promising lineup from the majors in several years.

Changes in the film biz have moved studio specialty divisions centerstage in awards races, but they haven’t eliminated the majors.

“The force of the majors in the Oscar race is a cyclical thing,” says Fox Film Group prez Tom Rothman. “They will be a continuing presence in coming years.”

Even though the majors have taken a back seat in the awards season recently, “I don’t think there’s an institutional absence of the majors,” he affirms.

However, Rothman adds, “Specialty divisions will now always be contenders, because they are specifically constituted to make high-quality, adult films. The specialty divisions’ presence in the Oscar race is now institutional, but it doesn’t mean the majors will be absent.”

An Academy Award is not a goal in itself. No film exec looks at the release slate and says, “Where’s our Oscar picture?” Bottom-line thinking comes first, and preparations for the year-end slate usually focus more on holiday box office than on awards.

DreamWorks CEO Stacey Snider points out that there are more serious awards contenders in the past few years, with both majors and niches creating quality work. “The proliferation of specialty units (with the influx of dollars) is fueling the production of films that might not have gotten made in the past. Marginal films — films that wouldn’t be made at a major — are being justified by diverting them to the speciality unit.”

The exec says she’s glad to work at a company that doesn’t see films as just “product.” But the key issue to a film being greenlit is “I want to make it” and any awards consideration is a secondary concern.

Studios are aware that it’s a slippery slope to chase an Oscar, because noble intentions and prestige talent are not enough, as “The Shipping News,” “Pay It Forward,” “The Majestic,” “Beloved,” “Meet Joe Black,” et al., discovered.

When studios are developing “serious,” ambitious films, execs often ask, “Do we really want to spend $30 million to market this?” So they sometimes shift projects over to their niche divisions.

A major studio will often add heft and money to a project — that can be good, but it also can change a film. Would “Atonement” or “There Will Be Blood” have had the same casts and script if either they’d had hefty input from a major? Or would they get lost in development hell and never get made?

Hollywood used to acknowledge crowdpleasers, ranging from “E.T. the ExtraTerrestrial” and “The Fugitive” to “Jerry Maguire” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” It’s possible to be somber and exhilarating, but “fun” is not the first word that comes to mind when describing the winners in the last few years — “Million Dollar Baby,” “Crash,” “The Departed” and “No Country for Old Men.”

Steve Tisch, producer of the upcoming “Seven Pounds” and an Oscar winner for “Forrest Gump,” agrees that Acad voters were drawn to nonstudio films this year, but says that, as a voter, “I don’t look at what studio releases or finances a movie, I look at the movie. This year, I nominated movies that I thought were worthy — most happened to be outside the studio system, but I think that is cyclical.”

He points out that in virtually every category, Acad voters “were drawn to nonstudio films and independent films.” But it’s hard to read anything into that: “It’s simply driven by the movies themselves.”

At this time of the year, the majors always avow they will reclaim the Oscars. But Tom Bernard, co-topper of Sony Pictures Classics, says that won’t happen unless the studios can find a way to benefit financially.

“An Oscar campaign can cost millions of dollars, including all the expenses to keep a movie in theaters at that time,” Bernard says. “When the Academy Awards were held in late March, studios could mine that Oscar fever for three key months, January through March, and there was lots of money to be made. Now (with the show in late February) that window is more narrow, the income is smaller. And often the expenditures in the Oscar race are not recouped, so studios are reluctant to market their Oscar movies. But the indies have everything to gain with the Oscars.”

The niche divisions — Focus Features, Miramax, Sony Pictures Classics, etc. — have provided ample evidence that Oscar is a valuable marketing tool for the right kind of film.

The majors are strategizing more closely with their niche divisions and are learning this lesson, but they haven’t yet applied it to crowdpleasers.

Over the years, many have cited “The Sixth Sense” as an example. Miramax was aggressively pursuing kudos for its 1999 “The Cider House Rules,” but parent company Disney — the only major to never win a best-pic Oscar — didn’t throw the same amount of enthusiasm (or coin) behind “Sixth Sense.” (DreamWorks “American Beauty” won that year.)

And some in the film biz are not sure they want the majors to reclaim the awards.

The wins in recent years for “Crash,” Eminem, Three 6 Mafia, Pedro Almodovar and “Pan’s Labyrinth” are providing a serious challenge to the Acad’s fuddy-duddy reputation. AMPAS has been bringing in younger voters, which helps shake the past tendency toward safer choices. But it also means the expansion of a group of voters who may value cutting-edge expression over traditional entertainment value.

Many in Hollywood this past year raved about “The Bourne Ultimatum,” “Zodiac” and “Knocked Up.” But how many votes toward a best pic nomination did those films get?

Certainly the majors appear poised for a strong Oscar presence. But so do their niche divisions and indies.

Among the other films opening this year:

Focus has “Milk” (Gus Van Sant, Sean Penn); “The Argentine” (Benicio del Toro as Che, directed by Steven Soderbergh); and the next film from last week’s triple Oscar winners, Joel & Ethan Coen, “Burn After Reading,” starring George Clooney and Tilda Swinton.

Miramax has “Doubt” (based on the Pulitzer Play by John Patrick Shanley, produced by last week’s Oscar winner, Scott Rudin, with Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman); and “Blindness” (Fernando Meirelles, with Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo).

Fox Searchlight has “The Secret Life of Bees” (Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah). MGM-UA has “Valkyrie,” teaming Bryan Singer and Tom Cruise. The Weinstein Co. has “Shanghai” (director Mikael Hafstrom, John Cusack) and “The Reader” (Stephen Daldry, David Hare, Winslet and, yes, Rudin).

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