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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Independents Winning Notice But Big Studios Still Win Bucks

HOLLYWOOD -- No one could argue with the contention that 1996 was the year of the independent film. But what is up for debate is how the major studios will respond, if at all, to being overwhelmed by the independents in the Oscars race this year.


The nominations for the 69th annual Academy Awards were announced Tuesday, and independently made movies received the lion's share of acclaim -- 19 nominations in the top five categories to the studios' six.


"Jerry Maguire," a TriStar Pictures production, was the only big-studio nominee in the best-film category. It will go up against "The English Patient," from Miramax; "Fargo" from Gramercy Pictures; director Mike Leigh's "Secrets & Lies" from independent October Films; and "Shine," from Fine Line Features, about emotionally troubled Australian pianist David Helfgott.


But Hollywood executives generally agreed that the dearth of award nods within the studio system would not alter their policies to concentrate on "event" blockbusters.


"I think the studios all feel kind of badly for about six weeks. They feel real badly on the day of the Oscars because they're not going or they're watching it at some party," said producer Brian Grazer, who along with his partner, Ron Howard, makes mostly big-budget mainstream pictures.


"But I think that's fleeting," Grazer said. "Two weeks later they're back to making high-concept movies with big movie stars."


Sure, Oscars are prestigious, but the ultimate prestige is still striking it big at the box office, both domestically and overseas. And event pictures -- like "Independence Day," "Twister" and "Mission: Impossible" -- generate hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide.


"While the studios would like to win Academy Awards and be honored for greatness, the bottom line of the studios is, and always has been, making money," said Tom Pollock, chairman of the board of trustees of the American Film Institute and former head of Universal Pictures. "The goal, of course, is to make money while making great films, but if you have a choice between making money and making great films, it's 'Show me the money.'"


This focus is likely only to intensify, since most of the studios are owned by large diversified corporations that also support other entertainment divisions. Indeed, this year audiences will have even more event pictures to choose from than last year.


In fact, a trend that began four years ago when Disney acquired Miramax seems to be continuing, as many of the major studios are forming or buying art-house divisions to market and release smaller, independently made films. Some in Hollywood believe this lets the big studios have it both ways.


"It's fashionable to say there's antagonism between independents and studios," said Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of Miramax. "But studios are in the business of making big event movies, and it's actually more conservative for them to make those big movies. So they've left a piece of the real estate to the independents to follow projects that are a little riskier, less star-driven, more writer-oriented. As a result we can coexist peacefully."


Disney owns Miramax Pictures, whose films received 20 Oscar nominations and is the most successful of the smaller specialized movie companies. And 20th Century Fox has Fox Searchlight; Sony created the Sony Classics division; and Warner Bros. now owns Fine Line Features, whose releases received seven nominations. Other studios, like Paramount and Universal, have been aggressively seeking to form or acquire their own art-house divisions, and October Films, the independent distributor responsible for "Secrets & Lies" and "Breaking the Waves" is reported to be in discussions with several studios.


It is the studio blockbusters that, in a sense, bankroll the arty independents.


"Studios have to have big movies to make those smaller movies," said Tom Sherak, chairman of the 20th Century Fox domestic film group. "You have to have movies that do very well for studios to be able to afford a [Fox] Searchlight."


Some studio executives said that studios need to delegate to their art-house divisions the tough job of ferreting out the gems among the growing number of independent films.


"Generally studios are not as aggressive about acquisitions [of independent films] -- they're usually a little bit behind the eight-ball," said Robert Friedman, vice chairman of the Paramount Motion Picture Group. "They're not as attuned to the buzz. It's hard to compete with the Harveys [Weinstein, co-chairman of Miramax] and Sonys of the world who have people spending 24 hours a day on this."