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.

A movie that would be perfect to model is The Dark Knight, the fabulously successful sequel to the fabulously successful Batman Returns, which (as a sequel and a comic book adaptation with an internationally translatable story), follows a replicable formula that gives it all the attributes of a surefire box office winner. And sure enough, Dark Knight became the second highest-grossing movie in history after Titanic. It proved to be a four-quadrant blockbuster, having so far earned more than $500 million domestic, and more than $400 million international. And it’s a picture with real artistic merit.

But in an apparent act of masochism, we in the Academy didn’t see fit to nominate the picture—or its enormously gifted director. What were we thinking?? Did we want no one to watch the Oscar telecast? As a business that depends on the availability of credit, and that suffers as more and more bootleg copies of our DVDs are being sold for $5 on the street corners of Flatbush and Beijing, we are at the precipice of an apocalypse. The Oscar telecast is the industry’s biggest promotional opportunity of the year. But the show’s viewership depends on the audience’s familiarity with the pictures. (The Oscars got their biggest ratings ever the year that Titanic swept). I ask you, do we really expect to draw a crowd with The Reader? Did anyone in, say, Peoria see the reader? Did it even open there?

So now on to the telecast that possibly no one will see. Bill Condon and Laurence Mark, the team that brought us Dreamgirls, are producing the show, which fact should offer a hint as to what kind of over-the-top scene it will be: Musical! Production numbers!... But everyone hates the numbers in the Oscars. People are grumpy about this year’s show each for their own reasons. The hipster comedy contingent is grumpy because Ricky Gervais, who was so hilarious at both the Emmy’s and the Golden Globes, and is the funniest person alive right now (full disclosure, I’m producing his next picture and this is a plug) has been passed over as host. Then there’s the rock contingent, who are furious because Peter Gabriel won’t be allowed to sing his whole nominated song from Wall-E; (which, by the way, many people think was robbed of its best picture nomination as well) and his participation was reduced to 65 seconds in a song montage with the other nominated songs. Gabriel was so insulted that he announced on Monday that he will withdraw from the performance altogether. And there’s the homophobic contingent, who fear that the Oscars have been transmuted into the Emmy’s, and that Hugh Jackman, the show’s charming, multi-talented host, will turn the entire proceedings into a top-hat-and-tails dinner theater wingding for over-50 middle-American women and theater gays. On top of this bizarre mix, the producers have added tween heartthrobs Zac Ephron and Vanessa Hudgeons of Disney’s High School Musical, which means that the bid for ratings has skipped the la-di-da hipsters altogether.

Bill Condon and Larry Mark are probably sweating in their velour designer sweat pants. But the truth is, as ever in Hollywood, if the numbers are good, all is forgotten, and they will be heroes. Plus ça change…

And now, some predictions. In general, there are really only two races. Supporting Actress, which is wide open, and Best Actor—between Mickey Rourke, for The Wrestler and Sean Penn, for Milk, with a slight chance for an upset by Frank Langella (very slight). We will be discussing the nuances of these choices with the movie stars themselves tonight at the only great and true-blue classic Hollywood event that has survived both the recession and the dethroning of Harvey: the annual Friday Night pre-Oscars party thrown by Bryan Lourd, the elegant co-head of Creative Artists Agency. Until then, Jai Ho.