The Oscar season is about to wrap, which means that media ad reps will stop cashing checks and filmmakers will return to shooting movies instead of doing Q&A sessions. Remember, this was supposed to be a quiet awards season in post-Harvey Hollywood, but in fact it’s turned out to be the year of the “big spend.” One reason: The absence of a clear favorite. Another factor was the arrival of some important new players, especially Netflix. Harvey Weinstein may be old news, his company fighting off bankruptcy, but the fierce campaigning he initiated is more feverish than ever.
Oscar campaigns may seem surreal in terms of marketplace realities; massive budgets for ads and promotion are chasing modest post-Oscar revenue bumps. Yet there’s a lot at stake: For Fox Searchlight, kudos for The Shape of Water or Three Billboards could guarantee continued autonomy at a moment of consolidation, as well as providing cover for past flops. An Oscar for Lady Bird could build new momentum (and broader financing) for an ambitious indie like A24, which scored last year with Moonlight. A struggling newcomer like Annapurna, which bombed with Detroit, could pick up credibility with Phantom Thread, which it produced (Focus funded it along with Darkest Hour).
Netflix and Amazon have even more exotic issues at stake. Netflix has spent as much as $10 million (it won’t comment on the number) to boost Mudbound and other projects, and Amazon, which is pondering bigger-budget features, gave a big push to The Big Sick. For companies still in the “building stage,” awards reinforce the ability to package hefty future projects.
But there are even grander expectations behind the Oscars. To the majors, the high-intensity race reflects the buoyancy of an industry fighting some disturbing long-term trends. The number of movie tickets sold in 2017 was off 21% from 2002. Three of the six major studios sustained slimmer profit margins than a year earlier. Hence the “big spend” leading up to “the big show” reflects, on one level, renewed confidence in the future of movies at a time when streaming keeps capturing headlines.
So is Harvey missed? For years the majors resented Weinstein’s presence as the self-anointed impresario of the Oscar derby. Indeed, exactly 20 years ago I wrote a column explaining how Harvey, having already accumulated 110 nominations and 30 wins, had seemingly dropped the ball. Rivals breathed easier as Harvey found himself devoid of important candidates in the Oscar race. Apparently he had become too distracted with politics, with starting a new magazine, with hobnobbing with celebrities and, as we were all to find out, pursuing a course of self-destruction.
Late in the game, however, Harvey blasted off with two dark-horse entries in the Oscar race — Shakespeare in Love and Life is Beautiful. The projects took his opposition by surprise. But his brazen showmanship defined the Oscar race yet again.
Over the years, Harvey’s tactics infuriated most professionals in the business. He liked negotiating tough deals at the eleventh hour, demanding trick terms and now and then leaving big bills unpaid. His rivals, like his filmmakers, were confounded by his last-minute maneuvers — rumors denigrating the work of key rivals late in the race. To be sure, these tactics ultimately seemed trivial relative to the overall disaster of the Weinstein legacy.
As Oscar season wraps, post-Harvey Hollywood seems to be generating a new optimism and resilience. And even though this is a year without a frontrunner, a winner will ultimately be declared this weekend. With any luck, only one winner.