When it came to the business of Hollywood, this was supposed to be the new Oscars. You had a streamer in competition for its first major Academy Award, Disney trying to win its first best picture prize and the storied studio of Twentieth Century Fox turning the page on its history.
And in some ways, the evening proved to be the start of a fresh chapter. Netflix won a top prize, for director; Marvel Studios won its first Oscars, period. But by the evening’s end, it was Universal Pictures’ “Green Book,” a traditionally framed movie from a traditional studio, landing the best picture statuette. Over the course of its relatively quick and hostless 200 minutes, the 91st annual Oscars showed that, as an industry, Hollywood is often hurtling forward and backward at the same time, embracing a new era even as it looks to the past.
Here are six of the salient business lessons from Sunday night’s telecast.
It was intriguing in recent weeks to hear some film people talk about the two Hollywoods — the cutting-edge woke one that fronted for “Roma” and the more throwback one that pushed “Green Book.” Here’s a little business secret: The films come from the same company. Participant Media financed and produced both “Roma” and “Green Book.”
Participant is the company with accessible but often socially conscious films — “Spotlight,” the 2016 winner, was theirs, as was this year’s documentary nominee “RBG.” It’s proof that Hollywood, even political Hollywood, is less monolithic than you’d think. Good scripts get money and green lights no matter their message.
The traditional studios
This was supposed to be the big return of the studios after many years of independent companies and their subsidiary specialty divisions taking the top prize. After all, the only studio that had won best picture in the past 15 years — Warner Bros. — was back in the game, bringing out a juggernaut in “A Star Is Born.”
The Bradley Cooper-Lady Gaga collaboration promptly bowled over critics and audiences at the post-summer film festivals and didn’t look back, racking up an eye-gaping $424 million at the box office worldwide. Warner looked set to return to the glory that had seen it win best picture with movies such as “Argo,” “Million Dollar Baby” and “The Departed,” beginning in the mid-2000s. It was time, it seemed, for those franchise-happy studios to get back to the Oscar podium.
And sure enough, when the final name was called out Sunday night, a studio did take the prize. And that studio was … Universal Pictures.
Victimized by either its peaking too soon or a feeling that its principals already had plenty, or by … something, “Star” faded, leaving “Green Book” to take the slot — the first win for Universal (and any non-Warner Bros. major studio) in 17 years.
The irony is that “Green Book” not only wasn’t an early favorite to top Warners’ big release — it wasn’t even the front-runner within Universal. That honor first belonged to Neil Armstrong picture “First Man,” which faded upon release.
But the adapted screenplay winner was also a business triumph. Or, at least, proof one can succeed in the industry while flouting much of its rules. There aren’t many creators who have a more complicated relationship with the studios and their money pipeline than Lee. The filmmaker has made plenty of movies for Hollywood’s traditional powerhouses, but not much in recent years. (More typical have been movies like the micro-budget “Red Hook Summer.”)
When the outspoken filmmaker did collaborate with the studios, it could go pretty well financially (“Inside Man,” “Malcolm X,” both hits) but also pretty disastrously (“Clockers,” “Miracle at St. Anna,” both not).
Lee was making “BlacKkKlansman” for Focus Features, a specialty division of Universal Pictures. That association meant more money than a film financed outside the system, but also more freedom than one made at the top echelon. That splitting of the difference proved wise: It earned Lee acclaim and his first Oscar.
And just as well that he went with Focus — given how Lee seemed to feel about “Green Book,” it’s unlikely he’ll be making a movie with Universal anytime soon.
How to evaluate the streamer’s big night? It and its major contender, Alfonso Cuarón’s Spanish-language “Roma,” took three Oscars, most notably best director for Cuaron. That’s a major coup — the tech-minded firm had never won an Oscar of that prominence in the past.
Yet it also came up short on the big prize, best picture — the one it was favored to win. It’s hard to know what did the film in — certainly as a foreign-language movie it had its work cut out for it. (A wholly non-English film has never won the Oscar’s top honor.) “But the fact it came from a company that has angered traditional Hollywood — some in the sector are upset about Netflix’s unwillingness to play movies for very long in theaters — didn’t go over so well either.
No matter for Netflix. The company and its veteran strategists were already thinking ahead. During Sunday’s telecast, they advertised Martin Scorsese’s 2019 picture and next season’s awards hopeful “The Irishman,” pointedly noting that it will be “in theaters this fall.”
Same question as soon-to-be streaming rival Netflix: Did this night work out well?
Like “Black Panther’s” political message, it’s complicated. With “Panther” falling short of the big prize, the landmark studio has still never won best picture. It also failed to win animated feature for only the second time this decade. So can Sunday night be considered a win?
Well, Disney’s Marvel Studios did win its first Oscars — for production design, costume design and score, all for “Panther.” The former two also hit other marks: Costume designer Ruth Carter became the first black woman to win in the category, while production designer Hannah Beachler is the first African American to take that prize.
It will be tough for Marvel to replicate the feat with future films: Ryan Coogler’s movie was just that singular. But Disney isn’t done. It will shortly complete its acquisition of Fox and, thus, also its awards powerhouse Fox Searchlight. Searchlight has won best picture three of the past six years and pulled off a big upset with Olivia Colman’s best actress win for “The Favourite” on Sunday. Get ready for “Disney vs. Netflix at the 2020 Oscars: This Time It’s Not Marvel.”
The box office
Not all best picture winners burst out of the gate. But the 2019 prize-taker was notable for just how slow it started.
“Green Book struggled badly,” wrote the Hollywood Reporter in its early box-office assessment, before noting its “disappointing” total of $7.4 million domestically over a five-day Thanksgiving weekend, its first in more than 1,000 theaters.
The film earned middling reviews, which didn’t help a drama of its more intimate scale. In fact, some critics continue to be upset over the film’s race messages, like the LA Times’s Justin Chang, who compared it, very unfavorably, with 2006 winner ″Crash."
“Green Book” didn’t pick up an especially large amount of steam after its opening — in fact, it has still never taken in more than $6 million in a weekend. But it has held on in theaters for a long time — more than three months and counting.
Some commercially minded Oscar contenders go into a lot of theaters quickly — “A Star Is Born” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” beginning in 3,500-plus screens. And some go very slowly — “The Favourite,” which took a month to get to over 100 screens. “Green Book” had a kind of hybrid approach. It started in 25 (slow). Then it went to over 1,000 in its second weekend (fast). But then it held there, not going over 2,000 until two months in, after Oscar nominations (slow).
And now? It’s at $70 million — not quite on the high end of hits like “Slumdog Millionaire” but not as low as, say, 2017 winner “Moonlight,” either. Oh, and what other best picture winner comes in at exactly that inflation-adjusted $70 million total? “Crash,” of course.