Arthouse nominees may mean sag in ratings

The campaign has begun, the money is flowing and the corks are popping. I’m referring to the Oscar finals, not the political primaries; arguably the Oscar campaign is even more opaque.

There’s a skimpy three-week corridor during which campaign planners have to marshal support for “No Country for Old Men” vs. “There Will Be Blood” (to pick the most obvious rivals). That means a competition involving four dark, violent movies (the exception being “Juno”) representing, not the mainstream studios, but rather their specialty divisions.

Indeed, having studied the Academy choices, the very insiders who last week were asking, “Will there be an Oscar show?” now are wondering, “Will anyone watch it?”

No one is challenging the quality of the nominated films, but there’s a legitimate question as to why the studios this year decided to pull their support from their mainstream product — the films that audiences actually embraced. It’s understandable why Oscar dollars weren’t spent on potboilers like the “Pirates” or “Spider-Man” sequels, but where were the major campaigns behind such superbly crafted films as “Zodiac,” “American Gangster,” “Knocked Up” or “The Bourne Ultimatum”?

The reality is that the studios have essentially decreed that the Oscars should be about arthouse movies. I don’t think the moguls of old would have approved.

The decision is a very recent one. Only four years ago such populist fare as the “Lord of the Rings,” “Master and Commander,” “Seabiscuit” and “Mystic River” (along with “Lost in Translation”) were at the center of the Oscar competition. Then came the anomaly of “Crash”; it was exhilarating to see a total outsider grab the spotlight, but it wasn’t an especially memorable film. Also, the biggest “crash” related to the Oscar show ratings: From a peak of 55 million viewers during “Titanic,” only 38.9 million people tuned in to the Oscars during the “Crash” year.

The Academy Awards are not merely about ratings, to be sure, and the emergence of the specialty divisions is an important phenomenon that has opened distribution pipelines to cinematic product — films that would normally be shunted aside by the tentpole-obsessed majors.

Indeed, a new generation of arthouse Thalbergs is emerging for whom the Oscar race represents a vital marketing cog. Of the five best picture nominees this year, only two have even registered on the radar overseas and only “Juno” has topped $50 million in box office in the U.S.

Hence, the upside for a film like “There Will Be Blood” is far juicier than for a “Bourne Ultimatum,” which has already reaped big box office returns around the world.

The Oscars thus represent big profits for the new Thalbergs, who have kept their budgets low and profit participations modest. Further, the margin of risk has been carefully laid off — their partners are the likes of realtor Steve Samuels (“Michael Clayton”) or Bob Yari (“Crash”).

Further, as the talent agents will tell you, the specialty division moguls feel no embarrassment about telling a $20 million star that he must work for scale if he’s to be honored with a role in one of their projects, even though the executives making the offer themselves are employees of major entertainment conglomerates.

Despite these built-in hypocrisies, their strategy is working. Some good films are being made, some serious young filmmakers are being indulged and, in the coming weeks, some freewheeling Oscar campaigns will be mobilized. As a result of the hoopla, many thousands of moviegoers will be tempted to pay a visit to “Atonement” or “No Country for Old Men” DVDs will move off the shelves and “Juno” probably will become an unlikely international blockbuster.

Swept up in the campaign will be some delightfully unlikely participants: It’s gratifying to see Julie Christie emerge from her semi-retirement in Wales, to find Marion Cotillard sharpening up her English for the interview circuit or to discover Ellen Page shedding her deer-in-the-headlights look (she’s really 20 and cool).

But does this necessarily mean that Jodie Foster can’t win a nomination for “The Brave One” because the movie was made for the dreaded “parent company” or that Judd Apatow is persona non grata because he happens to be both successful and funny or that performances like Russell Crowe’s in “American Gangster” or Amy Adams’ in “Enchanted” or Robert Downey Jr.’s in “Zodiac” will automatically be ignored by the Academy in the future because their films happen to be mainstream?

Somewhere along the way the process has become oddly off-balance.

Scott Rudin, the obsessively private producer who becomes Mr. Insta-Quote during Oscar season, attributes all this to “alchemy” rather than strategy. But in the movie business today, the bottom-line strategists are interested more in data than alchemy. And they may be reading their numbers the wrong way.

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