‘12 Years a Slave’ Wins Best Picture Oscar: 3 Lessons for Hollywood

What three key lessons can Hollywood learn from the critical and commercial success of ‘12 Years a Slave’?

Mar 3, 2014 at 9:12AM

12 Years a Slave just took top honors at the 86th Academy Awards, winning the awards for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress for Kenyan-Mexican actress Lupita Nyong'o.

The film, written by John Ridley and directed by Steve McQueen, was based on the 1853 memoir of the same name and released by Fox (NASDAQ:FOX) Searchlight Pictures and Entertainment One.

Prior to writing 12 Years a Slave, Ridley had shifted between drama and comedy with films like U Turn (1997), Three Kings (1999), Undercover Brother (2002), and All Is By My Side (2013). McQueen is a relative newcomer, with only two prior feature films -- Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011) -- in his filmography.

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Let's take a look at three key lessons that mainstream Hollywood studios can learn from the critical and commercial success of 12 Years a Slave.

David still stands a chance against Goliath
12 Years a Slave grossed $140 million worldwide on a production budget of $20 million. That impressive six-fold return on investment tops the ROI of Lionsgate's (NYSE:LGF) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which grossed $864 million on a budget of $130 million.

Although major studios obviously consider Catching Fire to be a much more profitable affair than 12 Years a Slave, the latter's ROI shows that lower-budget films can still triumph over CGI-fueled blockbusters. The same rings true for Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA)/Focus Features' Dallas Buyers Club, which picked up Oscars for best actor (Matthew McConaughey) and supporting actor (Jared Leto).

This means that Hollywood studios don't always need to use recognizable franchises or big-budget special effects to guarantee a return on their investment. It also disproves the notion that a CGI-fueled bubble, which Steven Spielberg and George Lucas suggested will result in tiered ticket prices for different films, is forming in the movie industry.

Films with small production budgets with powerful messages still stand a chance to be highly profitable on a percentage basis, albeit not on a dollar basis. Therefore, if studios greenlight more lower budget films with heart, instead of a handful of bigger budget films with broader commercial appeal, Hollywood's reputation for fostering creativity could considerably improve.

Small projects with heart can still attract big name talent
Although Chiwetel Ejiofor, who portrayed Solomon Northup in the lead role, has appeared in films since 1996, he was hardly a household name prior to 12 Years a Slave.

Therefore, adding A-list actors in supporting roles -- including Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, and Brad Pitt (also one of the film's producers) -- considerably elevated the film's public profile. Moreover, each of these actors accepted considerable salary reductions to fit into the film's slim $20 million production budget.

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The actors in 12 Years a Slave weren't the only ones to take big pay cuts in exchange for a lucrative role. Matthew McConaughey reportedly rejected a $15 million paycheck for Dallas Buyer's Club in exchange for $200,000 in upfront fees. Jonah Hill also took a multi-million dollar pay cut to a mere $60,000 for the opportunity to work with Martin Scorsese in The Wolf of Wall Street.

The message is clear -- expensive and talented actors and actresses are willing to reduce their salaries if the material is artistically appealing. That's great news for an industry that is struggling with soaring costs of big name stars. Disney (NYSE:DIS), for example, reportedly paid Robert Downey, Jr. $50 million to star in The Avengers, a whopping amount that accounted for 23% of the film's total production budget.

Historical accuracy beats fictional history
In a previous article, I mentioned that five out of the nine films nominated for Best Picture were based on true stories, and a sixth -- American Hustle -- was loosely based on real events. That dramatic increase from the previous years can be interpreted in two ways -- either Hollywood is running out of original ideas, or there is a genuine rising interest in films based on true stories. I optimistically favor the latter.

However, a new dilemma appears when filmmakers tackle historical topics -- just how many creative liberties are filmmakers allowed to take when basing a film on factual events?

12 Years a Slave is frequently compared to Lee Daniel's The Butler, which also surprisingly grossed $168 million on a budget of $30 million. Like 12 Years, The Butler depicts an important time in African American history, and features numerous high profile stars in supporting roles (Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, Robin Williams, John Cusack) despite its limited budget.

The key difference between these two films, however, is its treatment of the source material. 12 Years remained relatively faithful to the 1853 memoir, but The Butler included so many changes to the life of White House butler Eugene Allen that the character was renamed as the fictional Cecil Gaines instead. His half-fictional life was then used as an allegory for the U.S. Civil Rights movement through the decades. In that sense, The Butler resembled Robert Zemeckis' masterpiece Forrest Gump, but Forrest was completely fictional.

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Due to those issues and complaints about sanitized bias (especially regarding Ronald Reagan's views on Apartheid), The Butler doesn't hold up well against 12 Years a Slave in head-to-head comparisons -- the former has a 73% rating on review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, whereas the latter won over critics with a 96% rating.

My final take
In conclusion, films like 12 Years a Slave and Dallas Buyers Club should give filmmakers hope that Hollywood is not doomed to turn all films into expensive 3D rides.

Critically acclaimed films can still make a handsome return on investment and attract top tier talent, but they require studios to change tactics -- they need to release more smaller budget films instead of fewer bigger budget ones to even out their bets.

Disney's The Lone Ranger, for example, had a production budget of $215 million -- which would have been enough to make 12 Years a Slave more than 10 times -- yet only grossed $260 million worldwide for an approximate profit of $45 million (before marketing costs were deducted). By comparison, 12 Years a Slave ended up with a profit of $120 million.

Now simply imagine what could have happened if Disney took that $215 million and invested it in 10 smaller, promising films like 12 Years a Slave instead.

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