Oscars, profits can't predict films' long-term appeal

The Baltimore Sun

Few filmmakers have ever packed the commercial/critical one-two punch Steven Soderbergh exhibited in 2000.

Erin Brockovich, his legal drama starring Julia Roberts, came out in the spring, grossed more than $125 million domestically and collected five Academy Award nominations, including best picture, director and actress (which Roberts won).

His panoramic drug-trade drama Traffic was released at the end of the year, grossed $124 million and snagged another five Oscar nominations, with Soderbergh competing against himself for best picture and director. It didn't win the top prize (that went to Gladiator) but otherwise took home Oscars for director, supporting actor (Benicio Del Toro), adapted screenplay and editing.

Also released in 2000 was Darren Aronofsky's harrowing drug-addiction tale Requiem for a Dream. It grossed a mere $3.6 million and received one Academy Award nomination: best actress for Ellen Burstyn.

Today you can pretty much guess which films have had a lasting influence, right?

At Netflix, the nation's largest mail-order DVD rental service (with 6.3 million homes covered), Traffic had four times as many rentals as Erin Brockovich in February. And Requiem for a Dream had about 33 percent more rentals than Traffic.

OK, but what are people buying? According to Nielsen VideoScan (which measures DVD sales just about everywhere in the U.S. except at Wal-Marts), Requiem (the original unrated version) sold almost four times as many DVDs as Traffic and almost six times as many as Erin Brockovich in the first seven weeks of 2007.

None of these measures is scientific. But a simple interpretation is credible: Requiem for a Dream is the more widely viewed movie now.

The box-office figures and awards may make this point seem surprising, but the greater lesson is intuitive: Movies go on to have lives unrelated to the numbers and kudos by which we obsessively judge them when they're in the spotlight. We're so busy declaring the weekend box-office winners and losers -- and letting the Oscars and other awards create some merit hierarchy -- that we easily forget that time renders many of these verdicts meaningless.

"Box-office success doesn't mean it's going to have a lasting critical appeal, and even an Academy Award is no guarantee," said Patricia King Hanson, executive editor of the American Film Institute's Catalog of Feature Films. "Some of the films that are going to be very high on the all-time greatest lists are likely to never have won an Academy Award."

The Shawshank Redemption, a movie that grossed a modest $28.3 million upon its 1994 release (and received seven Oscar nominations but no statuettes), has been ensconced in the No. 2 position on the Internet Movie Database's Top 250 movies list, just under The Godfather, since 1999. More than 237,000 IMDB users have rated it.

Titanic, the all-time box-office champ and Academy Awards victor (its 11 Oscars is tied for tops with Ben-Hur and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King), is no longer king of the world, at least if rental figures provided by Netflix are to be believed. James Cameron's shipwreck epic took the 1997 best picture Oscar over As Good as It Gets, The Full Monty, Good Will Hunting and L.A. Confidential. Care to guess their current order of popularity on Netflix?

The most rented in February: Good Will Hunting. Just a tad under in second place: L.A. Confidential, which is rented twice as often as third-place finisher As Good as It Gets. Chop 8 percent from that figure and we get No. 4 Titanic. The Full Monty lingers just below that. (Titanic, however, still sells considerably more DVDs than the others, according to Nielsen VideoScan's 2007 figures.)

With its high-grossing contenders, the 1997 best-picture race was a dramatic reversal from the indie-dominated 1996 contest, in which The English Patient bested Fargo, Shine, Secrets and Lies and the one studio entry, Jerry Maguire. Yet not only is Fargo the most popular Netflix rental of those 1996 nominees, but the Coen brothers' dark comedy also tops Good Will Hunting and the rest of the 1997 nominees.

"Great movies may not win the awards, but they win the audiences over time," Netflix Corporate Communications Director Steve Swasey said.

Cinematic history is filled with examples of movies that weren't particularly well-received at first yet gained in popularity and reputation over the years. Howard Hawks' 1938 screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby, starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, was a critical and commercial dud but now is considered among the top comedies of all time. (It ranked 14th on the AFI's "100 Years 100 Laughs" list from 2000.) Walt Disney's Fantasia (1940) wasn't fully appreciated until the 1960s counterculture embraced it.

In 1998, AFI released its list of the 100 best American movies, culled from 400 nominees. This summer the Los Angeles-based organization will release the "10th Anniversary Edition" of this "100 Years 100 Movies" list (yes, it's been only nine years). Although the new top 100 isn't out yet, the pool of 400 nominees -- selected by 10 or so film historians, critics and AFI members -- is. The differences are telling.

Of course, many of the additions are films that have been released over the last nine years, including all the best picture Oscar winners (not counting the recently crowned The Departed), some blockbusters (The Matrix, the second Spider-Man, and all three Lord of the Rings -- with Batman, The Fugitive and Return of the Jedi among those dropped to make room), some well-respected indies (Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), as well as our 2000 trio of Erin Brockovich, Traffic and Requiem.

It's not just official film-organization types who are reevaluating and rediscovering movies. Word of mouth spreads faster than ever now that moviegoers regularly swap thoughts on various Web sites or via services such as Netflix.

Over on the IMDB top 250, not unusual suspects occupy the top slots (Shawshank is followed by The Godfather: Part II, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Casablanca and Pulp Fiction), but there at No. 15 sits a movie that always has been respected without necessarily being considered one of the greats: Sidney Lumet's 1957 drama 12 Angry Men, starring Henry Fonda as a hold-out juror.

"Wow, No. 15?" IMDB Managing Editor Keith Simanton said. "It's ahead of Lawrence of Arabia, for goodness' sake, and Citizen Kane."

Mark Caro writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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