Film Fund-amentals: And the Winner Is….

“The Academy will never vote for the comedy crap you make. They only vote for the arty crap.”

This blunt assessment of the Oscars® by the old Columbia Pictures mogul Harry Cohen was later proven wrong. At the time, he was arguing with the director Frank Capra. Capra went on to win the grand sweep for It Happened One Night. But let’s face it, Harry still had a point.

The history of the Oscars is long, varied and infinitely forgettable. Few people can ever remember the names of any movies that have won, and many of the significant films of any given period are notable for their complete lack of inclusion in the awards. Until they toned it down, the goofy fashions were the highpoint of the show. Everybody still has nightmares about Bjork’s swan dress at the 73rd Academy Awards. Nobody in their right mind remembers the film she was in.

So why do they bother? Originally, the whole Academy was created as an attempt to undercut the emerging unions and guilds by creating a phony, studio-controlled “alternative” with the awards as a piece of eye candy. The anti-union attempt failed, but the eye candy took off. In Hollywood, politics once again took a back seat to narcissism.

But once you strip away the fashions, the egos and the very brief moment of hollow acclaim, what remains? At best, it’s the money. Sort of.

The basic theory is that the Oscars provide extra publicity that encourages moviegoers to check out films they might not otherwise go to see (primarily small-budget films that often get limited release). To some degree, it occasionally works. Of course, I once had a car that was like that, and sometimes I could actually get it to start.

This can benefit small films, especially if they happen to still be in first-run release during the weeks running up to the award program. After its win, No Country For Old Men enjoyed a large increase at the box office right after its Best Picture win. Although this was followed by an equally dramatic drop, the award obviously helped add an extra $10 million to its take.

Which means that Slumdog Millionaire — which has already received a large box office boost from the Golden Globes — will easily take in another $20 to $30 million during its run. It may even succeed in cracking the $100 million mark, which isn’t bad for a movie produced for a mere $15 million.

Milk may actually get a wider release (even when it opened wide, it still had access to just slightly more than 200 screens) and certainly is worth another $5 million to $10 million if it could gain access to another 200 screens.

On the other hand, The Reader seems to have peaked already and most likely will achieve the least effect from the hype. Playing on more than double the screens of Milk, it is currently averaging about half the business. It will most likely be dropped by many theaters before the Oscar telecast.

So the clear winner is Slumdog Millionaire, with or without the trophy.

— Dennis Toth