Thursday, February 26, 2009

Oscar winners are only certainty in an uncertain biz

If you’re the sort of person who expects the unexpected, then Sunday’s Oscar telecast was probably almost as disappointing for you as it was for Mickey Rourke.

This year’s Academy Awards ceremony was completely devoid of surprises, unless you count the surprising lack of surprises. No out-of-nowhere winners like Marisa Tomei or Roberto Benigni. No one-armed push-ups. No streaker running past a delightfully unperturbed David Niven.

Usually the Oscars offer up one or two unexpected moments, if only to make you forget how predictable the rest of Hollywood’s annual celebration of itself really is. This year, however, not even that. The 2009 edition was so paint-by-numbers that kindergartners could have written the jokes. As it was, Bruce Vilanch wrote the jokes — as usual. And that’s basically the same thing.

“Slumdog Millionaire” took home the top prizes of Best Picture and Best Director. Sean Penn robbed Rourke just like he robbed Bill Murray in 2004. Kate Winslet finally snagged the Best Actress prize she should have won years ago. Heath Ledger received a posthumous Best Supporting Actor honor.

And so on.

It was all from the standard playbook. Oscar voters love to reward middlebrow, little-seen art films. They love to pat Penn on the back when he’s the least-deserving nominee. They love to make up for past mistakes. And they love to give awards to actors who play psychopaths (for example, Anthony Hopkins). There are exceptions to the first rule, like “Titanic,” a middlebrow film everyone saw, and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” But even “The Return of the King” falls under the making-up-for-past-mistakes rule. It won after the first two movies in the trilogy lost.

The Academy Awards are so predictable that filmmakers sometimes make movies with Oscar gold in mind, which is often a winning strategy, at least so long as it isn’t too obvious. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “Changeling” were two films this year that went too far and came up empty as a result, except for a few technical awards for “Benjamin Button.” Nobody wants to see a movie beg.

Still, I was happy to see Ledger and Winslet win, even if, now that she has her Oscar, Winslet says she isn’t doing any more nude scenes. Gee, thanks, Kate. Leave the nude scenes to actresses so thin that when they turn sideways all you can see are their implants. Meh.

Maybe I’m being too hard on Hollywood. You can’t really blame the Oscars for being predictable. They’re about the only thing in Hollywood that is. Compared to figuring out how to make a profitable movie, figuring out how to make an Oscar-winning one is easy.

Consider the top grossing movie of 2009 so far, “Paul Blart: Mall Cop.” Granted, it’s only February, but who would have predicted that a lowbrow “comedy” about a security guard would top the box office in its opening weekend, let alone be the top grossing movie two months into the year? No one, that’s who.

If you’ve ever wondered why the major studios make the movies they do, it’s because no one in Hollywood actually knows what they are doing. And I don’t mean that as an insult. I mean moviemaking is the riskiest, least predictable business on Earth. Most movies are lucky to make back their production and promotional costs after factoring in overseas grosses and DVD sales. If you’re a studio executive, you just hope that a couple of your movies hit big enough to make up the difference and keep you in your job.

It isn’t that Hollywood isn’t trying to appeal to moviegoers. It’s that moviegoers are the most fickle market there is.

Arthur De Vany, professor emeritus of economics at the University of California, Irvine, and author of “Hollywood Economics: How Extreme Uncertainty Shapes the Film Industry,” went looking for some pattern of success in Hollywood and found none. Nothing can predict whether a movie will be a hit or a flop. Sequels are slightly less risky, which probably explains why Hollywood makes so many of them. But even most sequels are more likely to lose money at the domestic box office than break even.

So, I can’t begrudge Hollywood its one night of predictability. Ironically, it’s the only night when the movies stick to the script.

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