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Image: Sandra Bullock in "The Blind Side"
20th Century Fox
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences opted this year to include 10 nominees for best picture, including more commercial crowd-pleasers such as “The Blind Side,” which might not have received a top nomination otherwise.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/5/2010 7:30:06 AM ET 2010-03-05T12:30:06

Here’s a sneak preview that’s sure to tantalize Oscar voters.

Cue the gravel-voiced narrator: “In a world where capturing the golden idol has long bestowed untold riches and global glory, the epic chase for this cherished treasure has now become a matter of survival.”

But this breathless-sounding tale is based on a true story. Or, to use the phrase of the day: “And the Oscar goes to ... the Oscars.”

Hollywood’s latest business woes have turned Academy Award nominations and wins into financial life buoys for many movie moguls, some industry insiders say.

“As box office shrinks each year for most film companies, and fewer films are made — which mean fewer jobs for talent — winning or even being nominated for an Oscar, for some, can mean the difference between having a profitable year and bankruptcy,” said Darrell Miller, an entertainment attorney at the Los Angeles firm Fox Rothschild. “For some actors, it can mean having a successful movie career or not.”

Now that’s a cliffhanger.

The thin edge between positive revenues and empty coffers also explains, in part, why the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the 6,000-plus artists and movie professionals who vote on the awards) opted this year to swell the best-picture field to 10 movies — twice the usual number. A top-film nomination alone can extend or expand a movie’s on-screen run as theaters and studios seek to capitalize on the month-long buzz. In late January, “An Education” was being shown at 50 theaters. After becoming best-picture hopeful, “An Education” was on the marquee at 800 locations.

Video: Bullock blindsided by success Extra screens may bring extra audience cash. In 2009, Slate.com examined the box-office results from the previous four years, comparing official best-picture contenders with films that once carried Oscar hype but didn’t grab nominations. The Web site calculated that the nominees fetched, on average, $6.6 million more in ticket grosses by formally entering the Oscar race.

In doubling its best-picture contestants, the academy seemed bent on inviting more commercial crowd-pleasers to the Oscar party. Popular flicks like “The Blind Side,” “Up” and “District 9” likely wouldn’t have squeezed into the top-film field in the past, film experts say.

“The major studios have been really upset at losing the Oscar over the last few years to smaller, independent films,” Miller said. “So the major studios quietly lobbied for the rule change to increase their chances of winning and to increase their chances of generating more revenues for nominated films.”

Recent examples include Fox Searchlight's "Slumdog Millionaire" in 2009, Miramax's "No Country For Old Men" in 2008, and Lions Gate Entertainment's "Crash" in 2006.

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Oscars drawing fewer viewers
As always, however, there’s a bit more to this Hollywood story line.

TV ratings for the Academy Awards presentation show have stalled. Between 1988 and 2002, the Oscar broadcast consistently lured 40 million-plus American viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. The 2008 program marked a historic low with 32 million viewers. Last year, the at-home audience was measured at 36 million. Adding some box-office favorites to the best-picture contest “was done to create more interest in the Oscar telecast,” said Ronald Jacobi, ex-general counsel at Sony Pictures, now a member of the international law firm Bryan Cave.

“If you want to be completely financial about it, the people who make the awards shows profit the most,” said Larry Kasanoff, CEO of Threshold Entertainment, a four-time Oscar winner and executive producer or co-financier of many films, including “Platoon,” “Dirty Dancing,” and his latest, “Lego: The Adventures of Clutch Powers.”

“Award shows are great business: Give celebrities awards, and they will show up for free. That allows the award show producer the opportunity to sell the show to the network for much more than it costs,” he said.

ABC will carry the 82nd Academy Awards Sunday as the network has done every year since 1976.

The potential windfall from a nomination — and the rising pressure to earn one — not surprisingly induces many studios to unleash furious and costly promotional campaigns to push their films for consideration.

A producer of "The Hurt Locker" was sanctioned this week for sending out multiple e-mails that cast aspersions on rival best picture nominee "Avatar" in violation of Academy rules.

Last year Universal Pictures bought five full-page ads in Variety, at a total cost of about $300,000, to push a nomination for “Frost/Nixon.” Universal also bought four front-page ads in the Hollywood Reporter to similarly sell the academy’s voters on that film. Still more hype was purchased through TV and radio ads. “Frost/Nixon” did earn a 2009 nomination for best picture, though it ultimately lost to “Slumdog Millionaire.”

(Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal, which owns Universal Pictures.)

“Every year, without reservation, every major studio and independent film company spends hundreds of thousands of dollars for promotions, publicity, press junkets and pressing DVD screeners for every member of the academy ... to increase their chances of getting an Oscar nomination or a win,” said entertainment lawyer Miller.

What is an Oscar victory worth to a studio — and to the movie’s producer, director and stars?

“That information is highly guarded by the studios,” Miller said.

Still, there’s far less consensus among Hollywood insiders when it comes to two more common questions: Which entities profit most from a win? And how much do Oscar-clutching actors financially benefit by seizing the shiny trophy?

“Everyone has a revenue participation” when a film grabs Oscar gold, Jacobi said. “That includes the studio as well as the major talent in the film, especially the producer, director and stars.”

No guarantee
On the other hand, consider Miramax Films, an independent film company that carved unrivaled art-house success through blockbusters like “The Crying Game” and “Pulp Fiction.” Long run by brothers Bob and Harvey Weinstein, Miramax was acquired by the Walt Disney Co. in 1993. Miramax won best-picture Oscars with “No Country for Old Men,” “Chicago,” “Shakespeare in Love” and “The English Patient,” and garnered a slew of nominations. In late January, Disney closed the Miramax offices, clumping it among several niche film companies that recently were shuttered as the studios struggle with rising production costs and fewer commercial hits.

For Oscar-owning actors, the award can allow certain stars to double or triple their asking prices for future films, Miller estimated.

But such financial bumps more often tend to be reaped by younger, less-established actors, contends David Eichler, who spent part of his career developing, producing and writing films for Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox. Today, Eichler is co-founder of David and Sam PR in Phoenix, Ariz.

“If the cast or filmmakers are relatively new in their careers, they get a huge boost,” Eichler said. “After all, what does Denzel Washington or George Clooney get from academy recognition other than their egos being stroked and their agents bumping up their quotes a few million dollars?”

Oscar winner Kasanoff has come to believe that the award’s true value cannot be measured in dollars.

“Winning an Academy Award is, first and foremost, a great honor because peers are bestowing the awards. Everyone associated ... profits in honor, motivation and, hopefully, more money,” Kasanoff said. “But the latter isn’t always the case. Quick: Who won ‘best supporting actress’ two years ago? I’m shocked if you remember. (Tilda Swinton for “Michael Clayton.”) But it doesn’t take away from the honor.

“Actors get paid based on their ability to draw an audience, not their awards,” Kasanoff added. “From a financial perspective, whose salary would you want over the last 25 years — an action star’s with no awards, or an art film thespian’s with tons of awards?”

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