Dispatch February 2009

A Diminished Oscar Season

Movie producer Lynda Obst laments the plight of recession-era Hollywood and explains why this year's Oscars are shaping up to be a disappointment
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Oscar time used to be much more fun, before the Academy criminalized Oscar parties. Well, actually it was campaigning for Oscars that became verboten. That’s what people said Harvey Weinstein was doing when he used to perpetrate his notorious —though for guests fabulous— Oscar-party excesses during his Henry-like reign as head of Miramax. It was like an AIG executive boondoggle. With no one in control of his budget, he outspent every studio in his fêting of academy voters. This he did yearly, to the chagrin of competing talent and, to the utter hysteria of competing studios (none of whom—because they had grownup budgets and corporate boards to report to—could begin to throw that kind of money around).  So the studios put a stop to it, via the Academy, and Harvey’s dominance of the Oscar season was over.

So, like everything else in the world, Oscar season is diminished these days. The pre-telecast glamour lives on in slightly paler form in New York, where studio publicity departments hire legendary publicist/party thrower Peggy Siegel and invite the A-list glitterati (as determined by Peggy) to really good New York restaurants like the Four Seasons, and it’s almost like the good old days. In L.A., the pre-Oscars glamour has evolved into “private parties” thrown by “friends.” To wit, multiple glittering parties  – including one by Salma Hayak, and another by Antonia Banderas and Melanie Griffith, among others—were given for Penelope Cruz in honor of her Vicky Christina Barcelona nomination. In the event that one isn’t quite so impressively friended, one’s studio head casually does the fêting. For example, for Frost/Nixon, Universal Studios CEO Ron Meyer “casually fêted” Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and Frank Langella at Nobu West with a cocktail/appetizer party a few weeks ago.  This is not exactly the same as Universal Studios giving you a party, as it is your personal friend—your pal Ron—hosting. So, the thinking goes, it’s not quite campaigning.

This year’s Academy Awards are grim for a whole different set of reasons.  We have no money. In this, we are not unlike anyone else—just more humiliated since, as representatives of the glamour capital of the world, it’s our job to look like we’re perpetually having the time of our lives. (In fact, if it weren’t for the infusion of Obama-inspired hope, I can half imagine Hollywood by now having ended up looking like those grim pictures of Jonestown.)

To make matters worse, this year’s Oscar narrative offers us no clear direction out of this mess. Usually we clone our Best Pictures. But Slumdog Millionaire, the movie now considered the odds-on favorite to sweep the big awards, was rejected by Warner, a major studio, and then was taken on by the brilliant Fox Searchlight studio, a division of 20th Century Fox. Searchlight, which also picked up the sleeper Little Miss Sunshine in 2006, is the last of the specialty film divisions housed within the hard-hit blockbuster-oriented studios, and the only one to have succeeded with this indie-style-division-within-a-mega-studio set-up. Searchlight thrives because it exercises discerning, case-by-case analysis of each movie’s potential, not by applying the kinds of blanket formulas many studios rely on. (We call this “modeling”, whereby one seeks to predict how much business a movie will do based on the subject, director, cast, and who is likely to see such a movie).

 So even though Slumdog turned out to be a major success – costing only $15 million and pulling in $88 million domestic and nearly $100 million international (and that’s before it wins best picture!)—that doesn’t mean that every studio can simply start making small, torture-meets-dance, director-oriented movies based in foreign capitals in order to turn a profit.  This kind of movie’s success is just too hard to predict.

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Lynda Obst is a producer and writer. Her newest film is This Side of the Truth, starring Ricky Gervais (who also co-wrote and co-directed) and Jennifer Garner. It will be released this fall. More

Lynda Obst was recruited to Hollywood from the New York Times Magazine in 1979 by Peter Guber, for whom she developed Flashdance and Clue, as well as beginning the development of Carl Sagan’s Contact. In 1985, Obst partnered with producer Debra Hill, forming Hill/Obst Productions at Paramount Pictures. They soon made the iconic teen pic Adventures in Babysitting. Then the duo produced Terry Gilliam’s Oscar-nominated The Fisher King, starring Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges.

Obst then began a solo-producing career, where she produced Nora Ephron’s directing debut, This Is My Life, and executive produced Ephron’s second film, Sleepless in Seattle. Obst then produced The Siege, Hope Floats, One Fine Day, and Someone Like You. One of Obst’s earlier projects came full circle when she came on Contact for Warner Bros. in 1997, directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Jodie Foster. In 1999, she executive produced NBC’s Emmy Nominated, two-part miniseries The 60s. Then Lynda moved back to Paramount Pictures, where she produced such films as How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Abandon.

Obst’s most recent film was the September Warner Bros. release of Ricky Gervais/Matthew Robinson's directorial debut The Invention of Lying, starring Gervais and Jennifer Garner. Her notable upcoming projects include Steven Spielberg’s Interstellar, a sci-fi feature from The Dark Knight scribe Jonathan Nolan, based on a story by Obst, Nolan, and Dr. Kip Thorne; What Was I Thinking, starring Leslie Mann, Elizabeth Banks & Jennifer Garner; and Getting Rid of Matthew, starring Jennifer Aniston.

She has long written about the movie business for magazines and blogs, including a long running Oscar dialogue with New York Magazine critic David Edelstein.

Lynda Obst’s magazine writing, as well as more information on her films, can be found on her website: visit http://lyndaobstproductions.com/.

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