The impact of a film winning an Oscar can't be judged fully in terms of actual numbers. Yet while it may not have a major impact on the box office or the home entertainment area, it does have one on the industry as a whole. The winning film acts as a barometer for audiences, analysts, and executives to see what works, what doesn't, and what areas are worth pursuing.
While this is the most wide open Best Picture race in years, it still looks like only three of the nine Best Picture entrants have a legitimate shot at Hollywood's top prize. However, each of the three have the ability to cause a ripple effect in the industry should they take home the gold.
12 Years a Slave
12 Years a Slave enters the night as the favorite with nine Oscar nominations, one behind the totals for American Hustle and Gravity. Yet Slave looks like the most complete film and also has the distinction of being a largely true story, which as history shows influences voters.
The effects of a picture like Slave winning Best Picture go beyond the usual realm as it would come 50 years after Sidney Poitier's landmark Best Actor win for Lilies in the Field. At the time Poitier was the first African American actor to win in the category as well as the first to win in a lead category and only the second African American actor to win period (Hattie McDaniel was the first for her supporting role in Gone With the Wind).
In the years since, many prominent African American actors have taken home the gold, but that number is still a very small percentage and only fuels the argument the Academy has a bit of a "color problem." After all, in the 85 years of the Best Actress category, there's only been one African American winner (Halle Berry) and to date no African-American has ever won Best Director. So for a film like Slave, which takes an unflinching look at slavery, to be "this" close to winning is a big deal.
Fox Searchlight (a subsidiary of Fox (NASDAQ:FOXA)), which distributed the film, did a masterful job of marketing and promoting the movie. Like its film, executives weren't shy about the subject matter and made voters feel obligated to watch its movie. The studio even launched an "It's Time" campaign to remind the Academy it's time to expand their horizons.
It's been a rough year for the Academy as a number of movies with African-American leads were snubbed despite performances that almost universally received praise from all areas of the industry. A win for Slave won't make up for those slights but it could send a promising message.
Gravity has the best chance to upend Slave and make history of its own. No sci-fi film has ever won Best Picture and just as no African-American director has won Best Director, neither has any Mexican filmmaker.
What Alfonso Cuarón has done with this movie is hard to put into words because there are no words that speak to the brilliance of what he pulled off. Gravity is an all-encompassing experience that literally changes the way the industry will make movies going forward.
It shows audiences will go see a 3D movie if the point of the film isn't to have random objects virtually thrown at them. It also shows audiences will go see a sci-fi film that could actually happen and it shows audiences will respond to new styles of moviemaking when those styles aren't crammed down their throats all to make a quick buck. If the film wins, expect more of these types of heavy-effect-laden pics to get the greenlight and for more visionary filmmakers and studios to embrace them.
The irony is that Gravity was put into production at Warner Brothers (a subsidiary of Time Warner (NYSE:TWX)) by then studio head Jeff Robinov, who also helped lead the charge to get The Lego Movie into theaters, but he was let go before either hit it big.
It's sad he won't still be at the studio to see Gravity walk through the door opened by the success of past Best Picture nominees Avatar, Hugo, and Life of Pi but nonetheless the film has the chance to extend those legacies largely because of his support. A win would make it the first 3D film to win the category and that would be like catnip to executives who are looking for any reason to keep producing any type of film that hits theaters with a upcharge.
The other movie with a shot to play spoiler is American Hustle. While Slave is a "production" film and Gravity is a "visual effects" film, Hustle is an "acting" film and secured nominations for all four of its leads. In fact it's one of only 15 films to have pulled off that feat and marks the third time it's happened in back-to-back years, and the first time it's ever been with films by the same director.
Hustle is a traditional ensemble film that lives and dies by its actors working together seamlessly. Slave also has a tremendous cast, but Hustle keeps its entire cast in play for the full movie. In Slave lead Chiwetel Ejiofor is the only member of the ensemble to be a constant presence throughout the film.
Ensemble movies have a long history of receiving Oscar love including such films as The Big Chill, Pulp Fiction, and perhaps most memorably Crash. This is a trend that is always in demand for studios and going back over the last 20 years, you can make a case at least half of all Best Winners were in some ways a "ensemble" pic. The industry will keep making them and the voters will keep reinforcing their value by rewarding them, which will be even more apparent if Hustle comes out on top.