Editor’s note: The following article appeared in Daily Variety on March 25, 1999. It is reprinted here in its entirety.
NETWORK AND STUDIO EXECS alike were exultant over the soaring ratings and overall public reaction to the Oscar show, which has staged a remarkable comeback from the doldrums of the past two years. Industry leaders attributed this recovery to the decision by Academy governors in June 1998 to ban in perpetuity the distribution of videos to Oscar voters. This drastic move was made as a result of the debacle of the 1998 Oscar show, when ratings plunged an additional 30%, following the 10% dive in 1997, the lowest in a decade. A key reason: The five best-picture nominees in 1998 were all art movies that had a combined world gross of $ 8 million. Two of the five had been rejected by Sundance as being too esoteric. One was an Albanian co-production with Sanskrit subtitles that qualified as an American film because it had been fully funded by Miramax and shot in the South Bronx, doubling as war-torn Albania.
MOREOVER, SURVEYS SHOWED that only 2% of the U.S. moviegoing public could identify a single nominee for actor or actress at the 1998 ceremony. Indeed, three of the 10 nominees were unable to attend the awards show because they couldn’t get past security at the Shrine Auditorium. “The 1998 debacle demonstrated that something drastic had to be done,” said Arthur Hiller, who is serving his fourth term as Academy president. “Clearly the videos had to go.” The problem was apparent as early as 1997, Hiller said, when a secret study demonstrated that only 1% of Oscar voters had actually seen “Sling Blade” at a theater and only 5% had seen “The English Patient.” Indeed, because of the blizzard of videos, Academy members had essentially stopped going to the movies at all, the study showed. “The ban on videos is a complete outrage,” said Harvey Weinstein, the fiery Miramax boss, after the Academy governors took their action. His indignation was not surprising, since all five of the 1998 nominated pictures were from Miramax. Weinstein was clearly hedging his bet, however. Nine months ago, Miramax established a new high-end wing to produce expensive, star-driven movies. It’s already shooting a $ 100 million sequel to “The English Patient,” which tells the story of a killer sand storm in Morocco. Brad Pitt joins Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche in the lead roles (Fiennes’ “death” had been mis-diagnosed in the first film, it turned out — only his epidermis had died). Also shooting is “Sling Blade II,” in which Billy Bob Thornton plays a feeble-minded Southern sheriff who blows away a gang of Chinese fundraisers who have taken over the Arkansas state house. Robert Redford is cast as Billy Bob’s mentor. The projected budget is $ 150 million.
MIRAMAX’S NEW PROGRAM of high-end projects theoretically puts the company in competition with its corporate parent , the Disney studio led by Joe Roth. A direct conflict is still a year off, however, because Disney is releasing nothing but animated megapics this year in a clear effort to demolish the new DreamWorks animation slate — a payoff to the well-known feud between Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. The first DreamWorks animation feature, “The Prince of Egypt,” grossed only $ 15 million, opening against a fusillade of four Disney animated pictures with a combined budget of $ 300 million. The impact of the video ban was readily apparent at this year’s (1999) Oscar show. The winner was an intimate romantic triangle directed by James Cameron, which he did on the rebound from his 1997 disaster picture, “Titanic,” — a movie that finally was delivered for $ 235 million. Cameron’s film had also won at Sundance, making it the first heterosexual love story to win critical approbation there in five years. ALL FIVE OF THE NOMINATED movies at the Academy Awards ceremony this year emanated from major studios — a sharp turnaround from recent trends. More-over, all five experienced substantial boosts at the box office as a result of their nominations, which seemed to remind studio moguls of the value of making movies that had characters as well as special effects. “For the first time in years, we’re looking for pitches with character arcs,” said one vice president for development at a major studio. “This is a real change for me. I’m used to looking only for action arcs.” Commenting on the impact of the new rules, Hiller concluded, “Banning the videos seemed like a drastic step, but I am beginning to think it was worthwhile. I actually saw two Academy members paying their way into a multiplex the other day. I hadn’t seen that in years.”