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Oscars a big gamble for film studios

WHAT’S an Oscar worth?

For Sony, which recently released The Social Network on DVD and will no doubt benefit from a huge boost in sales following Tuesday’s nominations, the answer is millions.

For Fox Searchlight, which cleverly waited until January 20 before releasing Black Swan internationally, it’s US$100 million or more at the foreign box office –– maybe even US$150 million if the movie wins Natalie Portman a statuette during the February 27 Oscar ceremony.

For Portman, a best actress victory could propel her into the Reese Witherspoon stratosphere of US$10 million-plus a picture, a lot more than the high-six figures she made on the US$13 million-budgeted Swan –– just as Halle Berry’s asking price shot up to more than US$10 million after her win for  Monster’s Ball.

Nominees and winners are the obvious beneficiaries. But there’s also a whole food chain gobbling Oscar money –– up this year from the recent past, thanks to having 10 slots for best picture instead of five as well as a genuinely competitive race. One report suggests trade ad pages alone have increased 20%.

The Oscar race has created a financial ecosystem whose tentacles reach far beyond the contenders and even beyond the Academy –– which will reap US$65 million-plus from ABC for this year’s telecast. The network is reportedly asking US$1,7 million for a 30-second ad spot, up from the US$1,3 million-$1,5 million it charged last year.

This ecosystem, on the smallest level, includes owners of screening rooms like Los Angeles’ Harmony Gold, which regularly charge US$1 000 – US$3 500 a showing (renting big spaces like the Academy or the Writers Guild’s theater can cost a whopping US$6 000 a shot); newspapers like The New York Times, which gets almost US$100 000 for a full-page color ad (though only US$9 000 for black-and-white pages in its Southern California “walnut’’ edition); and, oh yes, awards consultants, those guys deemed indispensable for any genuine contenders.

Awards specialists such as PR powerhouse 42West can make US$10 000 – US$15 000 a month for each movie campaign; this year, they’re handling everything from Social Network to The Ghost Writer to the Italian-language I Am Love. Even smaller PR companies handling art house and foreign-language films can do OK, especially if they’re successful and earn bonuses for a nomination or win, ranging from US$5 000 – US$20,000 –– though the fees are lower than they used to be,’’ laments publicist Fredell Pogodin of Fredell Pogodin & Associates.

Awards campaigners who handle a studio’s entire slate might earn a US$100 000 bonus if their films get multiple nominations. “At the top end of the PR spectrum, they can make anywhere from US$5 000 – US$350 000 in bonuses, depending on how many wins and nominations there are,’’ says awards veteran Tony Angellotti, who handles Universal live action and Disney animation. “But this is a drop in the bucket compared to other arenas.’’

Those other arenas include work by advertising agencies that design for print and TV. Their fees reach into the hundreds of thousands.

At least making the ads doesn’t entail spending on the stars –– except for photo shoots that involve hair, makeup and stylists, notes Tom Ortenberg, president of One Way Out Media, a broad-based entertainment consulting company. They can go from US$1 000 to $10 000 a day.’’

Does the outlay pay off in the long run? For individual winners such as F Murray Abraham (Amadeus), Cuba Gooding Jr (Jerry Maguire), Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland) and Adrien Brody (The Pianist), the Oscar has failed to turn them into superstars. In fact, in the eight years since he snagged his Oscar, Brody has gone from King Kong to Predators to suing an Italian company for US$640 000 owed on an unreleased thriller, Giallo.

A lot of money is spent; whether it’s a sound investment is debatable. “Milk is still in the red,’’ says one source familiar with the gay-rights biopic film that won for Sean Penn and writer Dustin Lance Black. “You’d be surprised how many Oscar wins just don’t help.’’ — Reuters.

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