'Birdman' puts Fox Searchlight and New Regency at the top of the Oscar mountain

Posted by · 10:49 am · February 23rd, 2015


The ripples from the 87th Academy Awards will be felt for years to come. Most are positive, some are negative, but beyond a disappointingly long and unfunny telecast this wasn't an Oscar season that will be forgotten anytime soon.

First off, the importance of Fox Searchlight's dominance during the telecast cannot be discounted. The mini-major took home eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, Director and Original Screenplay for “Birdman.” The four wins for “The Grand Budapest Hotel” notably included Alexandre Desplat's first win for Best Original Score. Moreover, Searchlight has now joined only a small number of studios that have won Best Picture back-to-back. The films they release year after year continue to rank in most film critics' top 10 lists and the modern classics under their banner are significant enough to make parent studio 20th Century Fox green with envy.

Over the past two years, they have released “12 Years a Slave,” “Belle,” “Calvary,” “Grand Budapest,” “Wild” and “Birdman.” Their upcoming slate includes critically acclaimed Sundance titles “Mistress America,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” and “Brooklyn.” They also have Jean-Marc Vallee's “Demolition” and Luca Guadagnino's follow-up to “I Am Love,” “A Bigger Splash.” If you are a filmmaker with “independent spirit,” there is simply no other studio you'd want to be at.

No conversation about the back-to-back success of “12 Years” and “Birdman” can be held without bringing up each film's primary financier, New Regency. When the Arnon Milchan's company had its production deal at Warner Bros. in the '90s, it helped co-finance classics such as “Heat,” “L.A. Confidential” and “Tin Cup,” among others. After the company segued to 20th Century Fox it mostly facilitated some of the worst films at that studio from 2000-2010. Something changed over the past five years (notably Brad Weston as CEO and President) and that new direction won't be ending anytime soon. New Regency has Alejandro González Iñárritu's “Birdman” follow-up, “The Revenant,” Cameron Crowe's “Aloha” and Warren Beatty's latest on deck.

For IFC Films, things are much more intriguing. If “Boyhood” had won Best Picture it would have radically changed the perception of the AMC Networks division. While the brain trust at IFC has always had incredible taste in acquisitions, outside of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” in 2002 (almost a lifetime ago), they have not been major players at the box office or with original productions. “Boyhood,” which it should be noted was greenlit around the same time IFC had success with “Big Fat” and “Y Tu Mamá También,” may have helped transform the distributor into an actual destination for filmmakers.

But has it really? At Sundance, IFC still let the big boys battle for the best acquisition targets first (Searchlight, The Weinstein Company, Lionsgate, Focus, etc.), and then came in to pick up the more challenging titles that have smaller margins for success. Can they build on “Boyhood” or was it the final chapter of an early time in the company's history? It may all depend on how much AMC Networks cares about the theatrical releasing business, but we're leaning toward the latter assumption at this point.

The other big winner of the night was Sony Classics. “Whiplash” took home three Oscars including the expected Supporting Actor win for J.K. Simmons, Film Editing and Sound Mixing. Classics also scored with Julianne Moore's Best Actress win, which was a foregone conclusion for those of us who attended “Still Alice's” world premiere at Toronto back in September. And while we don't want to rain on anyone's parade, shouldn't these movies have made more at the box office? How is “Whiplash” only at $11.3 million? How is “Still Alice” just at $7.9 million? And “Foxcatcher,” with Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, only earned $12 million. Classics has an amazing lineup of films over their 20-year history, but are they always well served by their conservative marketing strategy? If it ain't broke don't fix it, right? But during this past season we certainly wondered if Damien Chazelle's Sundance Audience Award winner would have been better served in other hands. It might seem strange to say that after three Oscar wins, but there wasn't a competitor out there who couldn't understand why “Whiplash” wasn't a bigger hit. Frankly, we still don't.

And Harvey? Well, “The Imitation Game” was not the player many thought it would be and almost got shut out if not for a timely Adapted Screenplay win. There were some under-reported hiccups that got in The Weinstein Company's way though this season. A significant number of key marketing executives gave notice in October, right when awards season planning was at its height (including the President of Marketing). That had many in the industry wondering who was running the show and, frankly, it's something of a miracle TWC pulled off opening “Big Eyes,” “The Imitation Game” and “Paddington” (those last two significant hits) under those circumstances.

The bigger issue in this pundit's opinion weren't the attacks on the historical accuracy of “Imitation” (although it should be noted the film was far less popular in the UK than you would have thought), but Benedict Cumberbatch's unavailability. The Best Actor nominee was busy shooting other projects during much of the season and “The Imitation Game's” chances probably hinged on his ability to help charm the collective “room” a bit more. Many are crowing over Harvey Weinstein's weak Oscar haul the past two years. They would be smart to watch their words as they may soon come back to haunt them, and Harvey has endured far worse than this. He'll be back in the winner's circle and likely sooner than you think.

We're not even sure we want to touch Paramount's awards campaign for “Selma.” It's such a sensitive subject. Some of it was bad luck. Some of it was strategic mistakes. Moreover, the attacks on its historical accuracy will absolutely go down as one of the saddest moments in the history of Oscar campaigning. There was so much at play with “Selma,” but we're hoping Ava DuVernay, David Oyelowo and Plan B can relish in the $50 million worth of moviegoers who have experienced it in theaters across the country.

Focus Features did not earn the bounty of Oscars it took home last year for “Dallas Buyers Club,” but they pulled out a win for “The Theory of Everything's” Eddie Redmayne in an incredibly tight race for Best Actor (we'll never know just how close it was, but it was likely closer than you think). The company has also proven that it has fully transitioned from the James Schamus era and can still pull off a superb awards and marketing campaign when needed. Focus worked “Theory” for months and much of that p.r. helped it earn over $105 million globally (it cost just $15 million to make). It's a perfect example of using the prestige cache of awards season as a mechanism for box office success and, trust, they'll continue to be a player.

Lastly, while “American Sniper” took home just one Oscar Sunday night — no doubt a surprise and disappointment to most viewers — its nomination haul and the fact that many thought Bradley Cooper could crash the Best Actor race is a testament to Warner Bros.' awards team. Many Oscar prognosticators, including this one, didn't think the film was a player after its AFI debut in November (back-to-back with “Selma”). WB proved us wrong. They are simply the best major studio at the Oscar game and are in the race, somehow, every single year. They didn't give up on Paul Thomas Anderson's “Inherent Vice,” either. While other studios may have pulled back as much as possible when it was clear “Vice” wouldn't play broadly, WB kept going. They may not ever see a financial return on that film specifically, but the message it sent to auteur filmmakers about the studio? Priceless.

All of these companies are already well aware of their slates for the 2016 Oscar season. They will take a breather, but before you know it the game will begin again. Are you ready?

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