Reported by John Anderson, The Guardian
The actual object that they hand out to winners on Oscar night – the 13-and-a-half-inch, eight-and-a-half-pound lump of gold-plated alloy that once reminded Bette Davis of her ex-husband’s backside – costs a reported $500 to manufacture. At auction, they’ve gone for hundreds of thousands. But in potential box office, they’re worth their weight in diamonds.
On stage at Hollywood’s Kodak theatre on Sunday night, the patter will include jokes about Britney Spears’ head-shave, George Clooney’s sex life and George W Bush. Viewers at home will be told, ad nauseam, that cinema is a collaborative medium, even as the would-be winners stare daggers at each other. But the only thing that a lot of people in attendance will be hearing is in the universal language of avarice: ker-ching! That “Oscar” means something isn’t the question. The question is: how much?
Before the Academy award nominations of 1999, Shakespeare in Love, which opened in the US in December 1998, had earned $36.1m. After the nominations on February 9 1999, and the Oscars of March 21 – where it won best picture – the Gwyneth Paltrow-powered romance earned another $64.1m. Its final domestic box-office number was $100.2m. Between its release in December 2001, and the nominations of February 12 2002, A Beautiful Mind, which earned Oscars for director Ron Howard and actress Jennifer Connelly, made more than $113m. Post nominations and a best picture win, it made an additional $57.4m. Final tally: $170.7m
An even more dramatic example of Oscar’s largesse – although much of it has to do with the number of theatres involved in the film’s initial release – concerns Million Dollar Baby. Before being nominated for its multiple Academy awards, the Clint Eastwood-directed boxing drama made only $8.3m. After nominations it made $92.1m. Its domestic total ended up at $100.4m.
It is American Beauty, however, among the recent best-picture winners, that represents the shining example of why people will violate every law of God and man to get a grip on that little metal guy. “In the week before the nominations in 2000,” says Paul Dergarabedian, of the Hollywood box-office monitor Media by Numbers, “American Beauty was in seven theatres. It was over, done; why would the studio put anything more into it?” The film had been released in September of the previous year. “After the nominations they put the film into 1,250 more theatres. When it won best picture, they moved it into additional theatres. The Oscar meant $55m more at the box office – $55m directly attributable to the Oscar nominations and win.”
By the time Crash won its three Oscars last year – including the big one – it had already left cinemas. A similar situation exists this year for Little Miss Sunshine and Babel, both considered strong contenders for this year’s prize and both available on DVD. But as Dergarabedian says, “there’s no downside to winning an Oscar”, even if some gains are more modest than others. Or relatively modest: Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, had already made $337.8m by the time of the nominations on January 27 2004, and its 11 nominations – and best picture victory – would mean “only” another $40m. Many moviemakers, of course, would be more than happy to see their films make a simple $40 mil.
What an Oscar will do for someone – or something – “depends on the size of the movie and also a little, the timing”, says Mark Gill. Gill was president of Miramax during the Shakespeare days, then head of Warner Independent Pictures. “There have been plenty of movies that got Oscar attention that already made a lot of money at the box office – this year’s example would be The Departed. That movie did just fine, irrespective of whether anyone cared about its Oscar chances.”
But there is another type of film, Gill said – and in his experience at Miramax he saw many – which depend not only on Oscar nominations, but on an existing public perception that they are going to get them. “The Queen is that movie this year,” he says. “If these films are not felt to be on the track of critical opinion of being ‘amazing’, or being headed toward Oscar glory, or being named one of the best movies of the year, they don’t do nearly as well. It really makes a difference between defeat and success. The Queen, at the end of the day, will probably earn $50m in the US and a great deal more around the globe, thanks largely to the Oscar attention.”
Sling Blade was another, similar, example. “When we started out, we couldn’t get 1,000 people to go,” Gill says. “And then we tried again closer to the nominations. Thank God, Billy Bob Thornton got nominated for both acting and screenplay. That was one of those rare cases where you could just sell the performance, because it was so arresting. And it took off. A million-dollar movie made $26m at the box office.
“For the right sized movie – especially one that isn’t an obvious commercial choice – it’s the difference between life and death.” If Good Night, and Good Luck hadn’t had so much awards attention last year, Gill says, “we would have lost money.” As it turned out, the Warner Independent picture, “a black-and-white history lesson”, made $32m. “Absent the Oscar nominations” – six – “it would not have gotten there.”
Epics are another matter. One can only conjecture, Dergarabedian said, how much money Dreamgirls has lost by – some would say shockingly – not being nominated for a best picture Oscar. The last musical to win, Chicago in 2002, had $63.8m going into the Oscar race; post-win, it made another $106.8m. The last gladiator movie to win – Gladiator – opened in May of 2000, so the effect of its Oscar is harder to determine. Suffice to say, the Ridley Scott film, which also won phone-throwing Russell Crowe his best-actor Oscar, made $187.7m.
There are exceptions that prove the rule of Academy awards bounty – an oft-cited example is Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, a film that won nine Oscars, including best picture, in 1987, and then rode off into the east.
And for some individuals, it can mean little or nothing. “Documentary makers win Oscars and it often does nothing for their careers,” says Amy Grey, whose Dish Communications in Burbank, CA, handles public relations on many of the non-fiction films shown on HBO, some of which invariably turn up among the nominated.
Others in the business are somewhat more fortunate. “It makes a huge difference when I go into meetings,” says Hollywood-based composer Joel Goodman. “If I mention that I worked on four Oscar-nominated films, it perks them right up. Frankly, they don’t want to hear the music as much as they want to see the credits.”
For people like Goodman, who occupy certain above-the-line categories of the Hollywood contract, an Oscar win can mean doubling, even tripling, fees. “Perception is what it’s all about,” Goodman says. “If James Horner were to win another Oscar, it probably wouldn’t make much difference. And Thomas Newman – who should have won for American Beauty – people probably think he’s already won, so it wouldn’t make much difference to him.” (The Oscar-less Newman has seven nominations, including this year’s The Good German.)
“Obviously, it gives you cachet,” says Eric Roth, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Forrest Gump, and a nominee for Munich and The Insider. “I think it also enhances your self-assurance. And at the risk of being crass about it, it means money.”
It means money all around: Roth, who spent a dozen years trying to get his script for The Good Shepherd on to the screen before Robert De Niro directed it, said that if the film been on the Oscar track, it would have made $10-15m more than it has. (The film has one nomination, for art direction.)
But an Oscar does wonders for an ego. “I think everyone here is insecure,” Roth said of Hollywood, “and the bigger you are, the more insecure you are. But there’s also this feeling with the Oscar that they can’t take it away from you. I’ve heard that from so many people who have won.” Simply being nominated, on the other hand, is nice, but not quite the jackpot. “It’s a way of being honoured by your peers,” Roth says, “but it’s not the same thing – except for what it does to your longevity. Nominees live longer than people who have won. You can look it up.”