Beyond the Oscar spectacle,Hollywood is grumbling

Sweaty hands will finally clutch their Oscars on Sunday night,putting an end to a Hollywood awards season that may go down as one of the most downbeat in memory....

Written by New York Times | Los Angeles | Published: February 23, 2009 2:22:09 am

Sweaty hands will finally clutch their Oscars on Sunday night,putting an end to a Hollywood awards season that may go down as one of the most downbeat in memory.

Movers and shakers in the film industry don’t like to grumble openly about the Oscars. After all,nobody wants to be caught talking down a ritual that has been very good,for a very long time,to a very large number of people in the glamour business.

Still,the Hollywood table-talk this year has been much less about Oscar prospects and more about the process. And an overriding theme is this: The movie prize cycle had better become shorter,brighter and more popular in its bent — or some major players are pulling back.

The conventional wisdom has it that Slumdog Millionaire,the big-hearted little film made in Mumbai and distributed in the US by Fox Searchlight,locked up the best-picture award months ago. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,whose voting membership is about 5,800,is increasingly foreign- and indie-oriented.

The fellow best-picture nominees are The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,from Paramount and Warner Brothers; Frost/Nixon,from Universal; Milk,from Focus Features; and The Reader,from the Weinstein Company. These films have supposedly been along for an expensive ride,competing for an odd Oscar in other categories while burning up millions of marketing and promotional dollars. But they are widely reckoned to have no real hope of winning the big prize,and most have not quite hit their targets at the box office.

Some executives have said that they do not expect their studios to make any movie in the foreseeable future as a specific Oscar bet. If honors happen to come,as they came to The Departed,a Warner film that was a surprise best-picture winner in 2007,so be it. But few are looking to make the next Frost/Nixon,a smart,critically acclaimed film that got Ron Howard a nomination as best director this year.

Frost/Nixon has taken in less than $20 million at the domestic box office,and may not make a profit when the cost of its long Oscar-season promotional campaign is added to its relatively modest $25 million budget.

As little as a year ago,the prestige that came with an Oscar contender could seem worth at least a small financial loss to studios that could always make up for it with their summer hits. In tougher times,not so.

Already,20th Century Fox and Columbia Pictures have become only occasional players in the Oscar game,allowing associated specialty units,Fox Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics,to be contenders with relatively small films. If companies like Paramount,Universal and the now-smaller DreamWorks also step back,the academy — protective of an enterprise that brings it more than $70 million a year — will almost certainly start looking for adjustments to a system that still needs big stars and the big studios that pay them.

The last significant structural change to the Oscars occurred in 2004,when they were moved up a month,to late February from late March. This was meant to lighten expense and fatigue factor of a movie awards season that was consuming nearly half the year. The next step could well be Oscars in January. That idea has been popping up in conversation lately.

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