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Did Paramount Back the Wrong Horse in the Oscar Race?

It’s fun to analyse the Oscars. It’s even more fun before any individual awards have been handed out. I’ve already given my thoughts on the Best Picture race and the acting nods, but I was just thinking specifically about Paramount’s Oscar campaign this year. Making the infamously misguided decision to champion The Lovely Bones at the expense of all others, they were left empty-handed and red-faced when the film imploded. In hindsight, it looks like they made the wrong choice in pushing forward their prospective Best Picture nominees. Maybe they would have been better-pushed to get behind Star Trek?

Saorse wasn't the only lost during The Lovely Bones...

Maybe I was unduly harsh when I proclaimed that expanding the Best Picture race would change nothing. It does change very little. Now, as before, there are only five really competitors – check out the Best Director nominees for a cheatsheet. Now, as before, they’re the exact same movies the institution would have picked last year or the year before. However, the composition of the bottom five is interesting. I expected “more of the same”, more ponderous, Oscar-iffic dramas like The Road or Invictus. What we got, while not radical, were nods towards the mainstream.

Now, let’s rewind a few months. Paramount’s marketing budget for 2009 is dwindling. These are tough times, after all. The have two potential Oscar contenders in the pipeline: Martin Scorcese’s Shutter Island and Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones. They decide that the odds favour The Lovely Bones, so mount a huge campaign for the adaptation and push Shutter Island into the wasteland of Spring 2010.

What followed was a monumental misfire. In fairness, it must have been tough to call at the time. A drama about a family falling apart after the death of their daughter, the daughter’s journey through the afterlife and Stanley Tucci giving one of those supporting performances that Academy voters love? The only way it could seem more Oscar-friendly would be if Jackson worked in some Nazis. But something went wrong. Very wrong. Critics tore it apart, picking over the bones (as it were), and it landed with a dull thud rather than rapturous applause.

In the end, most critics had crossed the once promising The Lovely Bones off the list of potential nominees even before the announcement. Sure, the movie secured a nomination for Best Supporting Actor for Stanley Tucci’s turn as a child killer, but it’s hard to imagine that Paramount were entirely pleased with that. This was the studio which produced The Godfather. What was really interesting to note, in the build up to the nominations, was that Star Trek was actually being discussed as a more legitimate contender than the movie with the money behind it. When District 9 and The Blind Side were announced as nominees, it didn’t seem implausible that a summer tentpole like Star Trek could now be an Oscar contender.

A contender, not a winner, mind you. As I said, even with ten nominees, it’s still going to be a five horse race. The ‘bottom five’ are also-rans, even at this early stage. But part of me wonders if Paramount aren’t looking back and shaking their heads. Given the box office reception to Shutter Island, it seems like that may have been the sane choice, but part of me wonders if it wouldn’t have made as much sense to throw the money behind Star Trek. The recession has seen the funding for independent studios cut severely, and it seems that the prestige dramas are the kind of films that the studios are cutting back on. On the other hand, because cinema reportedly thrives in a downturn, we can look forward to bigger blockbusters. Are we reaching the point where studios will feel that instead of funding so many little films, they can just throw campaign money behind their already profitable blockbusters?

Part of me wonders if there are studio chiefs rubbing their hands together at the thought of The Blind Side and District 9 – two populist choices which wouldn’t have had a shot in times past – picking up nominations. Think about it. If Slumdog Millionaire and Precious get box office boosts by being nominated, imagine what would happen if (god forbid) Transformers 2 picked up a nod. Oscar contenders are small films which become must see upon receiving the nomination. Imagine if a must see film became even more must see. Yes, those are dollar signs in our fictional executive’s eyes.

There was a time when there were really two ways to get a major studio behind your picture: demonstrate it could make a huge return on the investment, or prove it could win precious awards gold. There’s a reason that Oscar contenders typically don’t have huge box office returns, and that’s because the studios never really planned to make a profit on them, at least in cinemas. Now, imagine a movie could make huge amounts of money and secure a nomination. All you’d have to pay for is an Oscar campaign, and that’s pennies (okay, $5,000,000, but relatively pennies) compared to the income. It’s certainly much more efficient than taking a gamble on a huge financial loss with awards fare, right?

In fairness, we’re not even through one ten-nominee Oscar cycle, so it’s a little unfair to speculate. But I like thinking this far in advance. It means that long after my crazy ideas haven’t ahppened, everyone’s forgotten about them. There’s probably no basis for this observation, just my hyper-active imagination. But I’m wondering if a few more dollars could have made Star Trek a Best Picture nominee…

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