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DISPATCH FROM AWARDS SEASON: The Oscar Nominations: Serious Films Stand to Make Some Serious Money

DISPATCH FROM AWARDS SEASON: The Oscar Nominations: Serious Films Stand to Make Some Serious Money

Somehow it seems particularly fitting that the announcement of this year’s Oscar nominations came on a day filled with numerous breaking news stories: the appointment of a new U.S. Supreme Court Justice; the same day a network television anchor was transported home in serious condition following a bomb attack in Iraq; on the day Coretta Scott King died; and hours before President Bush would seek to “strike an optimistic tone” in a nationally televised State of the Union address. It’s not a stretch to try to connect the nominations to current events, given that so many of the movies strike such a serious tone, and with these accolades come the greater possibility that the movies will reach a wider audience. Four of the films in particular come from the specialty divisions of studios, distributed with platform releases that have relied on word of mouth.

Industry insiders spend months strategizing and prognosticating the annual end-of-year awards race, after all, an Oscar nomination can mean millions of dollars in theatrical box office and DVD sales. But it is hard to imagine that any insider could have predicted, back in August, that the highest grossing best picture nominee for 2005 would be the “gay cowboy movie,” Ang Lee‘s “Brokeback Mountain.” The film is joined in the race by a few other unlikely contenders: “Capote,” a film about author Truman Capote that was left orphaned by the demise of United Artists; “Crash,” a film about race relations that was released back in May of last year; “Good Night, and Good Luck,” a black-and-white look at journalist Edward R. Murrow; and “Munich,” a political thriller about terrorism from Steven Spielbergthat was kept under wraps until the very last minute. All are films that have a lot to gain from the attention they will now receive as the best pictures of the year.

Mainstream media are already calling it the “blah Oscars”, as a CNN anchor branded the awards this year, complaining that there is no big movies like “Titanic” and “no big stars” in the running for prizes. An editor at a mass market weekly magazine quipped to a friend, just after the nominations were announced today, that the ratings for this year’s Oscar telecast would likely lag, given that the current combined gross for all five best picture nominees is only about $185 million. Grosses in theaters (and ultimately on DVD) will certainly spike as a result of the nominations, and the eventual winner stands to do even better. One Indiewood chief at a rival company predicted that “Brokeback Mountain” alone will now likely top $100 million at the box office by the time all is said and done, a feat that would have seemed impossible to many insiders before the movie debuted at festivals in September.

Gill: Movies That Are About Something

“The country is in crisis in just about every way,” explained Mark Gill, president of Warner Independent Pictures, in a conversation with indieWIRE this afternoon, he added, “And voters are seeking movies that have something to say.” Gill added, “Even the one studio movie in all of this is filled with moral quandary and difficult decisions — they are all about something.” WIP’s film, George Clooney‘s “Good Night, and Good Luck” received 6 nominations.

The executive, a veteran of Oscar season from his days as President of Miramax, has a lot to celebrate today, noting that WIP is the first company to have a contender in three key Oscar races: “Good Night, and Good Luck” for best picture, “Paradise Now” for best foreign-language film, and “March of the Penguins” for best documentary.

Gill added that he plans to bump “Good Night, and Good Luck” up to as many as 800 screens this weekend, given the acclaim from the Academy, and the plan is to take the controversial Palestinian film “Paradise Now” up to as many as 50 screens (it has already made about $1.1 million at the box office). And as for the penguins, Gill admitted that the DVD is already “wildly overperforming,” and he expects even more success in light of the Oscar attention.

“This is the best possible outcome,” he added, “It’s lovely when it happens.”

Schamus: America Has Spoken

“No one was hired to make any of these movies,” noted James Schamus, co-president of Focus Features, about the best picture contenders. Focus received a whopping 16 nominations for “Brokeback,” “The Constant Gardener,” and “Pride and Prejudice.” “Everyone made them because they really had to make the movie,” said Schamus adding, “[We] are not in that place [we] might have been where it was independents v. studios. [We] are in a much more nuanced, ideological, and aesthetic business environment. [We] can create possibilities.” He explained that we are now in a time that reminds him of the moviemaking climate of 35 – 40 years ago.

“We like to pretend often that we are spectacularly new, that we have re-invented the wheel, that there is a huge trend and some gigantic change, when in fact what we are looking at [is] a situation that bears and uncanny resemblance to what the business looked like in the late ’60s and early ’70s.”

Schamus expressed tremendous pride at the success of his company’s “Brokeback Mountain,” a film he produced with Diana Ossana. It received 8 nominations and Focus Features plans to expand the film’s release to more than 2,000 North American screens. Of the film’s significant success so far, Schamus said, “Clearly the film has already proven its commercial viability before these nominations, now we can say America has already spoken, now this is simply going to help increase the scope and scale of the picture’s release.”

Ortenberg: Harnessing The Passionate

The fall festivals are seen as a key launching pad for awards season movies, with Toronto in particular being seen as the festival that truly ignites (and sometimes dampens) Oscar buzz. One of the Oscar contenders had press and insiders buzzing up in Canada nearly 18 months ago. “Crash” debuted in Toronto in 2004, where Lions Gate quickly acquired it. The film was subsequently released in theaters in May, and earned more than $50 million at the box office. Along the way, the film has fueled debates about race, particularly in Los Angeles. It was nominated for 6 Oscars.

While candidly admitting that “Crash” may not be everyone’s cup of tea, Lionsgate president Tom Ortenberg explained that the film has passionate supporters. “The movie resonates,” said Ortenberg. “The most interesting and telling thing about ‘Crash’ is that when you speak with almost anybody who has seen the movie — in Toronto, back in May when it was released, or at an awards-season screening — they remember it like it was yesterday.” Continuing he added that such deep support, from a group he likes to call “Crash-heads,” could be enough to best “Brokeback” in the best picture race.

“To its supporters, the passion that the film creates is really unlike the feelings that any other film has generated among its supporters in the last seven years,” Ortenberg said. “That passion among its supporters is what gives us a great chance at victory on March 5th.”

Barker & Bernard: Slow And Steady (As Always)

Over at Sony Pictures Classics, company co-presidents Michael Barker and Tom Bernard nabbed their best picture contender, Bennett Miller‘s “Capote,” back in May after the film was orphaned due to the demise of United Artists (which along with MGM were acquired by Sony Pictures Entertainment). Known for careful, frugal spending, they released the movie four months ago and expanded it ever so slowly, following the path of their first release at SPC, “Howard’s End.” This weekend, explained Michael Barker in a conversation with indieWIRE, the plan is to expand the film to as many as 1,500 screens across the country. The film received 5 Academy Award nominations.

“The fact of the matter is,” said Barker, “This is the moment to pop — having a best picture nomination — something that will tip the scales, especially in the smaller towns in America. These films take time to reach the hinterlands.” Continuing he explained, “We trusted in the quality of the picture (and) pursued five specific nominations.” The company also nabbed two other nods: Amy Adams as best supporting actress in “Junebug” and a foreign-language nomination for France’s Oscar entry, “Joyeux Noel.”

“Oscar nominations are really important for a picture of quality, for a film that is not thought of as mainstream,” noted Barker. “We try to stay true to who we are, I’d like to think it basically says that slow and steady can win the race — these Academy Award nominations validate that theory.”

Beating the Odds, Now Reaping The Rewards

As mentioned, strategies to market these serious films have allowed the five best picture nominees to find an audience. Now each will be given a chance to reach an even wider audience, although the nominations can come at quite a cost.

A recent Newsweek roundtable featuring the group that would end up being the five best director nominees — Clooney, Haggis, Lee, Miller and Spielberg — featured George Clooney speculating that Sony Classics spent upwards of $20 million to release “Capote,” though Bennett Miller countered that the figure was only half that. Chatting with indieWIRE today, Sony’s Michael Barker said that Miller’s figure was closer to the actual spennd. “I think we have spent a substantial amount,” explained Barker, when asked about awards spending. “Especially considering what it has grossed (so far), but it’s not the amount that Miramax or Focus spend.”

Schamus maintained that Focus has been cautious in its spending, leaving the high dollar awards season allocations to others. “The awards equation represents both a great hope and a great risk and a great threat.” To get attention and to hold onto it can be costly, think about all of the road kill on the road to Oscars this year,” Schamus said. “It represents collectively a kind of lunacy in our business. We didn’t bet the bank on [“Brokeback”], or the farm,” quipped Schamus. “I am going to let the insanity remain pocketed in another corner of the world.”

As for the fact that the five best picture contenders have grossed about $185 million at the box office combined, Barker told indieWIRE today, “The fact of the matter is, just look at where those grosses will be 2 weeks after the Oscars.”

Eugene Hernandez is the Editor-in-Chief of indieWIRE.

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