x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Oscars win means someone, somewhere failed

While the paparazzi were snapping photographs of Hollywood stars, the real discussion was about which studio executives would be fired

On Sunday night, as the Oscars audience applauded the winners and the losers attempted to hide their mounting sense of bitterness and despair, the true professionals in the room - what we Hollywood insiders call "industry veterans" - were focused on only one thing.

Money. When a movie wins an Oscar, there's a measurable bump in its revenue. People who had never imagined going to see, say, a movie about a boy on a boat with a tiger (Life of Pi) or an old lady dying in a hospice (Amour, and in a certain sense, every other nominated film) suddenly decide to go to the cinema or rent the DVD.

And when an actor wins an Oscar, his price instantly goes up. An Oscar statuette means cash. Even losing one implies a significant financial windfall. Even those actors and directors who went home empty-handed on Sunday night can expect a fatter pay packet next year. That's just the magic pixie dust that an Oscars association can sprinkle down.

But what industry veterans were really totalling up that night had nothing to do with box office receipts or a jump in actors' fees. They were trying to figure out which movie studio executives were getting nervous.

Making movies - or television shows - is a zero-sum game. If a studio produces a hit movie, or an Oscar-winning one (and these things aren't always the same thing), you can be assured that some other studio turned it down first. At least four of the Best Picture films in this year's Oscar race had been passed around town a couple of times at least.

Which means that sitting in the audience on Sunday night were a few dozen studio executives who never imagined that the script they shrugged at, the director they weren't interested in, the actor they wouldn't pay for, and the project that simply didn't strike them as worth the trouble would ever get made, let alone reach an Oscar-level of success.

And that means only one thing in Hollywood: someone is about to get sacked. Scratch a successful project and you'll find a lot of failure lurking underneath. A successful movie has failure trailing it like a comet tail.

The biggest comedy release of last year - and one of the biggest comedy films of all time - is the talking Teddy-bear movie Ted. It's a profane and deeply raunchy comedy (they all are these days, it seems) about a child's talking stuffed bear.

On the face of it, of course, it sounds stupid. Maybe even idiotic. But because it was written and directed by one of the most moneymaking and successful television comedy producers around, Seth MacFarlane, you'd assume that the studio that produces his many television shows would swallow hard and, despite the ludicrous premise of his film idea, pony up the dough to make the movie.

They did not. The feature filmmaking side of the studio just didn't see how the movie could be anything but awful. The television show-making side of the studio just didn't see how that mattered, considering the director was busily making them hundreds of millions of dollars a year and was worth keeping happy. Not to mention that someone who can successfully entertain millions on the small screen has a pretty good idea what, at that precise moment in the culture, is making audiences giggle. Still, the studio let the picture go, and it went to Universal.

They, too, for all we know, might have thought the movie was going to be a gigantic flop. But it would be a flop worth making because it would initiate a relationship with a very talented - and young - comic filmmaker. If the movie failed, he'd owe them one. If it succeeded, they'd be in business for years.

The movie succeeded. Spectacularly. Ted is the most successful adult-rated comedy of all time. The person responsible for passing on the project at the original studio has been fired.

And it was lost on no one in the audience on Sunday night that the host of the ceremony, Seth MacFarlane himself, had claimed several scalps already in his relatively young career.

So while the paparazzi were snapping photographs, real Hollywood insiders, the industry veterans, were making lists of which executives had passed on which projects, which studios lost out on which box office bonanzas, and which dinner-jacketed moguls would not be seen next year. Even on its most glamorous day, Hollywood keeps a weather eye on the bad news. Failure is always more interesting.

 

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rcbl