Though the Academy Awards won’t be handed out until Feb. 22, Oscar season is already upon us, and The New York Times has appointed a new Bagger to navigate this fevered, outrageously expensive annual arms race.
Coming in fresh, the new Bagger had one very large question: Are the Oscars really worth all the money, effort and hype?
The endless parties, the luncheons, the panels, the ads, the screeners, the strategist-driven campaigns, the whispering, the dog-and-pony showings of celebrities in 1-percenter clothes, all of it laser-focused on nabbing a gold statue that the odds are heavily against winning for any given contender: Why, people, why?
"You’re not talking about rational human agency," one industry insider said. "A Stockholm syndrome takes over."
The Bagger put the question to studio heads, directors, actors and producers, some of whom agreed to chat on the record, others off (several confiding that awards season was something they dreaded and loathed).
In an industry unparalleled in its reliance on external validation, there clearly is no bigger stamp of approval than the Academy’s. Independent films, in particular, get a lift. Ego is an obvious motive that people seem to see most clearly in others. Being "part of the conversation," that much recycled phrase, is a boon in itself: "It’s an honor just to be nominated" may sound cliched, but garnering a nod truly is a type of win.
Which raises the question of return on investment: How does all the money that goes into these campaigns — estimates run at more than $100 million for the season — measure against the revenue they supposedly generate?
Right now, in the prenomination phase, money spent on campaigns, particularly those driven by vanity — yep, they’re out there — is a gamble and could be for naught.
But landing a nomination means bigger audiences. Jon Kilik, a producer of this year’s "Foxcatcher," whose Oscar-nominated pictures include "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," "Dead Man Walking" and "Pollock," noted that an Academy nod can spotlight art house films that are often extremely hard to get in front of a mainstream audience.
More audiences mean more bank, not just in the short term. Marc Shmuger, former chairman of Universal Pictures, said being among the nominated few bestowed a film with a near-everlasting patina.
He also proffered the refreshingly noncynical assessment that the awards inspire quality in an industry besotted with the bottom line and prone to churning out big-budget comic-book flicks. "There is an occasion to celebrate when people are aiming high," he said. "Let’s all applaud that because it deserves support."
Very nice, right?
Back to that bottom line.
Brad Weston, the head of New Regency, which this fall had the acclaimed hits "Gone Girl" and "Birdman," said "12 Years a Slave," which his company co-produced, earned $17.5 million after nominations earlier this year, and $6.5 million more after its best picture win. Then the digital and DVD sales hit a year’s projections within the first week.
"Because of the movie’s intensity, let’s call it, a lot of people didn’t see the picture in the theaters," Weston said, "but the win validated that it had to be seen."
Tom Bernard, the co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, known for cultivating small gems, said nominations and eventual wins sent earnings for the 1992 releases "Howard’s End" and "Indochine," his company’s first two films, "over the top." Another example: After the whimsical animated "Triplets of Belleville" landed a best song nomination, its earnings more than tripled, to $7 million.
"Oscars are something that bring awareness that money can’t buy," Bernard said. "It’s credibility for an indie film to be in the race."
The numbers go on. "Slumdog Millionaire" (2008), an outsider film with no known stars, earned more than a third of its box office take after the nominations, and another 30 percent after the win, said Stephen Gilula, co-president of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
"The Last King of Scotland" (2006), about Idi Amin — hardly audience catnip — had little traction until the nominations: After its star, Forest Whitaker, received a best actor nod (he would win), it went on to earn over two-thirds of its total revenue.
There’s also the catapult effect on individual careers: After Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova won for original song in "Once" (2007), they saw that film made into a Broadway hit, which used their song and won eight Tony Awards.
(Of course, a win brings with it no career guarantee, though Entertainment Weekly has suggested that the myth that winning a best supporting actress Oscar is a career-ender turns out to be just that, a myth).
Fox Searchlight bought "Crazy Heart" in late August 2009, and rushed to release it that December after executives accurately gauged warm, fuzzy Hollywood sentiment toward Jeff Bridges, who went on to win best actor.
"Jeff is beloved in the industry, and it reminded everyone why," Gilula said. Bridges also saw a career lift: He went on to make the Coen Brothers’ smash remake of "True Grit."
Riding the awards season buzz is a key part of release date strategies — a studio can promote to general audiences and Oscar voters at once — which is why so many films come out at year’s end. David Glasser, chief operating officer and president of the Weinstein Co. (the Bagger tried to get Harvey, too; the company demurred), described the fall sweet spot: "We’ve always had a magic November date for the right picture," he said.
The Weinstein film "The Artist," which would win best picture, was released in late November 2011. The Weinsteins’ big horse in this year’s race, "The Imitation Game," opened on Friday, two months after winning the Toronto International Film Festival’s audience award, and doubtlessly riding that awards momentum. "A great way to start a campaign, getting that stamp right off the bat," Glasser said.
Away from Hollywood’s glare, the nominations can have arguably more resonant effects.
Within days of the nomination of "The Act of Killing" (2013), a surreal, grisly documentary about Indonesia’s slaughter of suspected Communists in the 1960s, the country’s leaders took the unprecedented step of admitting that something terrible had taken place.
"The government finally acknowledged that the genocide was wrong," said the film’s director, Joshua Oppenheimer. "It was the first time they’d ever done that. Until then they said, ‘It’s something to be celebrated.’"
Of course, for every win, there is a minimum of four losers, with Oscar night bringing a plethora of bruised feelings worsened by the exhausting, marathonlike campaigns. Not to mention the inherently demeaning blow of having your film lose a subjective race that pits such vastly different productions against one another: A showdown involving "Gravity," "American Hustle" and "12 Years a Slave" is akin to forcing a best picture selection among a Miro, a Pollock and a Monet.
"We’ve changed people’s lives, and that’s a wonderful, wonderful thing, but the process is not easy," Gilula said. "You have to go in knowing the odds are that you’re not going to win."
Or, as the actor Edward Norton sagely put it, in a brief chat at the New York Film Festival, "You can’t hang your emotional health on it."
There you are, Hollywood. Good luck with that.