What Happens When Hollywood’s Critical Acclaim Fails to Match Box Office Receipts?

Oscar's favorite studios and films often face bankruptcy and financial ruin, while Worst Picture Razzie winners have (more than once) earned billions of dollars at the box office. Why this disparity between financial rewards and Academy Awards?

Recently I was hanging out with a friend of mine who is a visual effects coordinator for a major VFX company that has worked on a gamut of current and upcoming blockbuster films. Impressed with her resume, I asked the obvious question of what was next for her company. Without even a moment to think about it, she responded “Bankruptcy.”

After shaking off the surprise my first thought was “Another one?” It was already a matter of instant Hollywood Lore that another (related) VFX firm called Rhythm & Hues Studios (R&H) was forced into bankruptcy two weeks before it accepted the Best Visual Effects Academy Award for the acclaimed Life of Pi (2012). To be sure, Life of Pi itself was a hit, and R&H cited unfair competition with foreign firms for its financial damages, but it was far from the first studio to create (or help-create) a critically acclaimed and Oscar-winning film only to face financial disasters.

So rarely are the big Hollywood money-makers the equivalent to Awards gold that the Oscars took note in the year of 2009. After years of such protectors of our cultural heritage as Entertainment Weekly (sarcasm, mine) questioning the Oscars’ recognition of high-quality, intelligent, dramatic pieces of filmic art over top grossers, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had no choice but to take note. After all, the 81st Academy Awards seemed to shine a spotlight on how out-of-touch the Oscars were with what the movie-going public of 2008 really wanted, with a Best Picture slate consisting of The Reader, Milk, Frost/ Nixon, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and the winner, Slumdog Millionaire.

These were, of course, hardly the box office powerhouses that were Kung Fu Panda, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Hancock and The Dark Knight (the last of which earned Heath Ledger a posthumous Oscar for doing a two-hour George Burns impression and calling it “The Joker”). You may also be shocked to discover that such films as Speed Racer, The Love Guru and Max Payne were tragically left off the ballot that year.

Thus, the Academy recognized that something had to be done. The 81st Awards were a ratings boost over the previous year’s record lows, but still weren’t nearly what the ABC Network thought they should be. Shouldn’t members of the Academy start conceding to the public that they are out of touch and begin honoring the films the public wants to see?

Of course they should not. In fact, that is the last thing Oscar should ever do. The best thing about the Oscars is that it has always been judgments of what the illustrious members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences truly believed were the BEST of the BEST films. Never were these awards a popularity contest, but always been about Merit. I would much rather the Best Picture nomination go to some obscure, low budget Art Film from Micronesia than something like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, in spite of the fact of the latter film making more money than a Dubai Prince in the year of 2009. Gold is Gold and Crap is Crap, dear Watson.

The coveted Lifetime Achievement Oscar (one of very few honorary Academy Awards), which is usually given to an artist who never won an Oscar for any of their work, but might deserve one, seems to have influenced virtually every other category over the last decade. There was open speculation in the press and trades that George Clooney might have received his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Syriana, because he's such a nice guy, and that Martin Scorsese won Best Director for The Departed, because he hadn't won an Oscar before and really should have. While Clooney and Scorsese undeniably earned their awards, Ledger won his posthumous Oscar primarily for being a very talented actor who passed away at the height of his popularity, not because he was innately better than the other five guys nominated. Hey, it happens! I mean, we can't go having a big media firestorm if the press thinks the wrong person received the Oscar, can't we? (Hey, Marissa Tomei, you have my deep sympathies.)

So in that same year of 2009, the Academy decided to do something about its snubbing of Blockbuster flicks… by lowering its standards and widening the pool for nominees. Because of the fact that only five really good films could get nominated for Best Picture, causing the real big hitters to not make the cut and causing Oscar Telecast ratings to decline even farther (kids, you should be at the movies anyway), The Academy announced toward the end of 2009 that no more would five good films be nominated for Best Picture.

No, from then on, it would nominate ten films for that little Golden Statue so that we can make room for the popcorn flicks out there in Cinema-land. This is in spite of the fact that in many years we only have two or three truly great films nominated for the grand prize and two or three that are "good enough" to round out the list. What was to be in a less-artistic year than 2008?

While it’s true the direst possibilities didn’t come to pass as feared and none of the Best Picture Nominees were actually bad movies, one must speculate if The Fighter, Inception, Avatar, District 9, The Social Network, Up in the Air or The Kids Are All Right could have possibly made the list if the Academy didn’t have to round out the nominees to a full ten. Again, none of these are bad films, but… Oscar Gold?

There is, of course, a reason that so often the bestselling movies are not often the Oscar nominees. It's because "The Masses" most often choose to watch crap or, at least, the films with the advertising budgets to force the public to believe these are, in fact, “must-see movies”. Let's face it, all it takes to convince the audience that it can’t possibly be the only kid on the block not to see a certain film is a fat marketing plan. Seriously, people, do we really want to live in a world where future Blu-rays of Sucker Punch will have that iconic image of that little gold statue on it? Is there anybody out there, really, who is screaming in pain at the injustice that is the Oscar Snubbing of The Hangover Part II? What about such financial successes as Twilight: Breaking Dawn or Paranormal Activity 3? These may be your favorite films, sure… but are they Oscar worthy?

Thus in 2011 the Academy rethought its quality-challenging alteration to the rules. Luckily (or, perhaps, necessarily, in fear that Transformers: Dark of the Moon might get a necessity nod), that infinitely wise Academy reversed that decision... or, at least, revised it. The rules now read something like "no less than five films, no more than ten". Were any in the cinematic entertainment press furious over the fact that only nine films from 2011 were honored, thus snubbing The Zookeeper, Conan the Barbarian and The Green Hornet from their deserving posts as number ten? I would seriously doubt it (aside from Entertainment Weekly, perhaps).

While I’m sticking to my guns like they’re super-glued to my holsters on this one, I do need to point out that Oscar’s weird misstep merely shines more light on the disparity between financial success and critical acclaim we so often see in Hollywood. For a prime example of this imbalance, one must look no further than the now-defunct Orion Pictures.

Orion was formed by three top-level executives from United Artists, who managed to ink a distribution deal with Warner Bros. early on, thus ensuring its access to established theatre chains. Woody Allen jumped ship from United Artists to Orion and the new company began licensing books like The Wolfen and Coma for adaptations before they were even published. Critical acclaim was almost immediate, but box office success was hard to find. 10 (1979) and Arthur (1981), both starring Dudley Moore, were financial successes with the latter film actually achieving two Oscar nominations (and winning one for John Gielgud as Best Supporting Actor). Yet Oscar nominee The Great Santini (1979) was a financial disappointment and the studio took a major loss over the control of the film The Cotton Club.

But over the next decade, Orion was a mainstay on the Oscar Ballot. Amadeus (1984) won eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Platoon (1986) won four Oscars, including Best Picture, Dances with Wolves (1990) won six Oscars, including Best Picture and The Silence of the Lambs is only the third film in history to win the “Big Five Academy Awards”, Best Screenplay (in this case, Adapted), Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Director and, yes, Best Picture. So Orion was sitting pretty, right?

Not if you listen to Billy Crystal, the repeat host of those same Oscars. At the March 1991 ceremony celebrating the 63rd Academy Awards, Crystal joked "You have Reversal of Fortune, about a woman in a coma, Awakenings, about a man in a coma and Dances with Wolves, released by Orion… a studio in a coma." By that time, Orion had already garnered some high profile flops like The Bounty (1986), Hearts of Dixie, Erik the Viking, UHF, She-Devil and Valmont (all 1989). When adding in the next year’s failures of Eve of Destruction, The Hot Spot and State of Grace (a critical success but a financial failure) it appeared that all of Hannah and her Sisters, the entire team from Hoosiers and even Robocop himself could not put Orion back together again.

Orion remained a success on the Oscar ballot and a joke on the Oscar stage. At the 64th Oscar show, Crystal continued his ribbing, saying “Business was great, in spite of a terrible recession that’s hit everybody. Take a great studio like Orion. A few years ago Orion released Platoon, it wins Best Picture. Amadeus, Best Picture. Last year, it released Dances with Wolves wins Best Picture. This year The Silence of the Lambs is nominated for Best Picture. And it can't afford to have another hit!“ Yes, by the time of that March 1992 broadcast, Orion had already been in Bankruptcy for three months (having filed Chapter 11 on December 11).

The financial, critical and Oscar success of The Silence of the Lambs couldn’t prevent Orion from being put up for sale, its remaining films released on major delays and its final dissolution taking place in 1998 (its final film, One Man’s Hero was released in 1999). Orion, or the remnants thereof, is now owned by MGM.

Orion wasn’t the first studio to be sunk by massively critically acclaimed, yet box-office poison films. In fact, the 20 year rise and fall of Orion strangely follows the 30 year rise and fall of RKO Radio Pictures. RKO put itself on the map with a string of musicals, eschewing the then-still-popular silent films entirely for talkies. It became a major player with the acclaimed blockbuster King Kong (1933), and acted as the distributor for Walt Disney’s films, including the incredibly successful Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). However, many of these successes were diamonds in the rough or proved to be more high-profile in the press than they were in the accounting offices. A deal between Studio President George J. Schaefer and Samuel Goldwyn, for example, kept Goldwyn’s high-profile hits under the RKO banner but most of the revenue in Goldwyn’s pockets, making every film a financial loss for RKO.

But that’s when RKO released “the greatest movie ever made” in Citizen Kane (1941). Orson Welles’ magnum opus (unless you count his '80s-era wine commercials or his final appearance in 1986’s Transformers: The Movie) was an immediate critical success and has become one of the most popular films for rental and purchase of all time. The keywords being “has become”, as, believe it or not, Citizen Kane was a money loser for RKO. Though a (very) modest success overall and the nominee for nine Academy Awards (winning one for Best Adapted Screenplay), much of that money never translated to profits for RKO, nor did his follow-up the next year, The Magnificent Ambersons, which was nominated for four Academy Awards. Ironically, RKO’s association with Oscar-magnet Welles resulted in a net loss of over $2 million for the already struggling company.

While RKO did rebound after the Kane “debacle”, its successes were generally nominal, resulting in elevated status for the name “RKO” without fattening its coffers by any substantial degree. Ironically, its bigger saving successes came not in the ambitious dramas like Citizen Kane but in B Horror films like the Val Lewton-produced masterpieces Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and The Body Snatcher (1945), all of which are now highly regarded and were successful Box Office Bs at the time. Film Noir soon found a home at RKO and helped keep the studio afloat. But a combination of investigations by the House Un-American Activities Committee and the legal shut down of the previous “Studio System” (which allowed movie studios to own theatre chains for vertical distribution) , caused RKO’s cash hemorrhaging to land it on the critical list. To add insult to injury, its biggest young star of the day, Robert Mitchum, was convicted of drug possession and sentenced to two months in jail. Even perennial favorite It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) was nominated for five Academy Awards but resulted in a $525,000 loss for RKO.

If not for the efforts of the legendary Howard Hughes swooping in to save it, RKO might have been lost. Under Hughes, RKO released films like The Thing from Another World (1951) and The Setup (1949), both well-regarded and influential successes, but the biggest distributed films of the 1950s were Disney’s Peter Pan (1953) and Goldwyn’s Hans Christian Andersen (1952), both of whose actual studios reaped most of the profits.

Under new owners, the General Tire and Rubber Company, RKO released two films by Fritz Lang, one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of all time, While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (both 1956), but high profile money losers like Pearl of the South Pacific (1955) and The Conqueror (1956) more than overshadowed critical success. The Conqueror, a Hughes vanity project, starred John Wayne as Genghis Khan (for some reason) and was so critically reviled it still makes the lists of the worst films ever made. While going on to make more than its budget back, its initial run earned RKO $4.5 million against a $6 million budget. That lost $1.5 million is a big deal for a studio in this much trouble. This final string of failures caused General Tire to retire RKO in any recognizable form and caused Jet Pilot, another Howard Hughes/ John Wayne collaboration, to fester in limbo until 1957 (six years after the end of shooting) and was released to a poor reception, looking dated and near comical.

While remnants of RKO do still exist, its LLC status bears little resemblance to the company that once released a string of successes, including Citizen Kane the film often considered to be the greatest ever made.

Successes didn’t even continue for Samuel Goldwyn Productions, which had a series of Oscar winning films throughout the '30s and '40s. Arrowsmith (1931), Dodsworth (1936), Dead End (1937), Wuthering Heights (1939), and The Little Foxes (1941) were all nominated for Best Picture Oscars with The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) finally achieving that prize. Oscar acclaim and profits eluded the company for much of the next decade with 1959’s Porgy and Bess proving to be its final release. Most of the company’s films are now controlled jointly by Warner Bros. and Miramax.

Similar stories abounded in Hollywood. The critically acclaimed Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) was an enormous box office success and won four Oscars, but couldn’t save its studio, Carolco, from bankruptcy after such expensive failures like Cutthroat Island and Showgirls (both 1995). Carolco’s spinoff studio Cinergi continued to break ground in effects as T2 had, but even the huge success of Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995) couldn’t make up for the underwhelming earnings of the special-effects heavy Judge Dredd (1995) or the disaster that was An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn (1997). Carolco and Cinergi’s founders reunited to create C2 Pictures to reenergize the Terminator franchise… but out of their four high-profile productions to date, their most notable (read: notorious) film has been Basic Instinct 2 (2006).

Not every Awards Darling/ Box Office unsuccessful film results in their respective studios’ decline, but it may surprise moviegoers to discover which films were underwhelming performers. Remember 1999’s Milos Forman film Man on the Moon starring Jim Carrey in a dead-on impression of the late Andy Kaufman? While famously snubbed by the Oscars, the film was an undeniable Golden Globe favorite, earning Carrey a Best Actor award (his second in a row). Unfortunately the film only earned $47 million against an $85 million budget. Even factoring in foreign ticket sales, Man on the Moon was a loss of $5 million for Universal Studios.

Cleopatra won four academy awards and was the highest grossing film of 1963 with earnings of $26 million. Unfortunately at a budget of $44 million, the film was a flop and a half. The Wiz (1979) was nominated for four Academy Awards and made slightly over half its $24 million budget back. The Last Emperor (1987) won nine Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director and eventually proved to be a success due to re-releases (including a 3D version that debuted at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival), but was not a success initially. Similarly, Clint Eastwood’s 2006 film Letters from Iwo Jima was nominated for four Academy Awards, winning one, and came in $6 million (domestic) under its budget.

Blade Runner (1982) is one of the most highly acclaimed science fiction films of all time and most every fan remembers it to be a hit, however, it opened to a disappointing $6.15 million and barely made its budget back. The Shawshank Redemption was nominated for seven Academy Awards and is a mainstay on AFI’s top film lists, but its initial run earned it $16 million against a $25 million budget. Subsequent re-releases to tie in with its Oscar nominations elevated its earnings, but it still made only $28 million total, a far cry from retaining its marketing budget.

So, do the Oscar naysayers have a point? Did Clooney have a point in his (South Park-deemed) “smug” Oscar acceptance speech? Is Hollywood a little out of touch with the mainstream, when so many of the big Blockbusters are ignored by the Oscars and other Awards shows while nominated films are rarely the top of the pops?

The evidence is there. Studios of yesterday and today have folded with an incredibly admirable slate of award-winning masterpieces under their belts and no amount of acclaim can guarantee translation into monetary gain. Even Citizen Kane, the commonly cited “Greatest Movie Ever Made” was a box office failure, but an Oscar favorite.

If there's a point to be made we must not to lower our standards in response to this point. The answer is to ask the right question. The question is not whether media-saturated blockbusters should be more commonly awarded while lower-budgeted, higher quality films are forced to make way. The question is: Why are these expensive movies commonly of such lower quality and why are the studios forcing these down our throats with even bigger marketing campaigns instead of making these films better with the hundreds of millions of dollars they syphon into them?

The result is an overall dumbing down of our cinematic heritage, especially when we attempt to force square pegs into round holes during awards seasons. These blockbusters have their own rewards in the form of, oh what is that stuff the audiences vote with? Oh yeah, money. We don’t need to dumb down Oscar to give Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen a Best Picture nomination, when it made, literally, a billion dollars over its budget. I don’t just mean that the box office take was a billion dollars, I mean it literally made $1.2 billion, against a $200 million dollar budget… and then went on to “win” a “Worst Picture” Razzie.

The audience can continue to reward the studios for films like these and vote with their pocketbooks. Meanwhile the high standards that Awards boards like the Oscars have (generally) shown should remain merit based even if such merit contradicts box office or even critical rewards. Even Citizen Kane and It’s a Wonderful Life were both critically lambasted on their initial release, but Oscar took note and partially because of this note, fans have rediscovered those films, as well as The Shawshank Redemption, The Last Emperor and the 2011 Oscar winner for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor, The Artist.

The Oscars, Golden Globes, AFI and other organizations of meritorious recognition build up these more obscure films (would you have seen Winter’s Bone if not for the Oscars’ recognition, and if not, would we have Jennifer Lawrence as we know her?), thus they should not be reduced in standards in favor of ABC Network viewership. Will audiences eventually choose to vote for the best films with their money after the example of these Awards Shows, and reward the studios which made them for making good films? If they do, perhaps we won’t need so much cinema press. Until then, however, I’ll continue to see you in the Next Reel.






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