This story first appeared in the Nov. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
For decades, Hollywood studios had dominion over the best picture Oscar race. Even their more commercial titles -- Jaws and Star Wars, Fatal Attraction and Working Girl -- landed in the coveted category. Then, beginning in the mid-'80s, the Golden Age of independent film -- eventually epitomized by Harvey Weinstein, whose company has won the past two best-picture trophies for The King's Speech and The Artist -- arrived. And the studios were upstaged.
Screeners, appearing on the scene, first in the form of VHS tapes in the late '80s, were the game changer, because they allowed tinier films to be easily and widely viewed. "Once, you got to vote for a film like The Towering Inferno. Today, you get The Kids Are All Right," says a veteran Oscar consultant.
But this year, for the first time in a while, all six major studios have a serious best picture contender. And since studios also have deeper pockets than the indies and will spend tens of millions on awards campaigns, it's like super PACs going to war. (Of course, there are lots of indies in the ring as well, among them Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Hitchcock, The Impossible, Moonrise Kingdom, Rust and Bone and Silver Linings Playbook.)
A major studio hasn't won best picture for six years; the last one was Warner Bros. for The Departed in 2007. But this year, the outcome may be different.
James Cameron's Titanic (1997) was the last 20th Century Fox movie to win best picture (sharing the victory with co-distributor Paramount). Studio bigwigs were stunned two years ago when Cameron's Avatar -- the highest-grossing movie of all time -- lost the golden statuette to an 11th-hour surge by The Hurt Locker. Fox is back in the ring this year with Ang Lee's ambitious epic Life of Pi, opening Nov. 21. It breaks new ground with its 3D and lavish visual effects, which have received a seal of approval from Cameron himself.
Although Les Miserables won't be unveiled at industry screenings until after Thanksgiving, the buzz for Universal's big entry has been fairly deafening. An adaptation of the hugely popular stage musical comes with lots of pedigree: Director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech), producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner of Working Title and stars Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway. Coming to theaters on Christmas Day, it hopes to be the first musical since 2002's Chicago to take the top prize as well as the first best-picture winner for Universal since 2001's A Beautiful Mind.
Paramount's top candidate is the dramatic Flight, Robert Zemeckis' return to live-action filmmaking, which got off to a strong start at the domestic box office during the Nov. 2 weekend with a $24.9 million bow. The studio, though, must convince Academy voters the movie is more than just another sterling Denzel Washington performance. Like Fox, Paramount hasn't sailed away with the top prize since Titanic. However, it knows how to compete: Last year, Martin Scorsese's Hugo led the pack with 11 noms (though it didn't ultimately close the deal).
Sony's big bet this year is Kathryn Bigelow's hunt-for-Osama bin Laden pic Zero Dark Thirty, which opens Dec. 19 in limited release. Will it be as victorious as the director's Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker? The studio hasn't seized the best-picture prize since 1987's The Last Emperor. The past couple of years have been especially tough. David Fincher's The Social Network, nominated two years ago, was backed by an aggressive campaign and attracted ardent supporters but ultimately wasn't friended by enough Academy members.
So far, Argo, Ben Affleck's period hostage drama, is the season's critical favorite. The challenge for Warner Bros. will be to keep the momentum going in the face of challengers. Argo, described by one industry veteran as "smart popcorn," has the advantage of being a box-office hit, grossing $77 million through Nov. 5 and counting. The studio also will make a best-picture push for Christopher Nolan's final Batman pic, The Dark Knight Rises (though its predecessor failed to crack the best pic circle), as well as Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and opening Nov. 9, is virtually assured of being nominated for best picture, just as Spielberg's War Horse was last year. DreamWorks co-financed the movie with Fox, and it is being distributed domestically by Disney, so it's got plenty of studio support behind it. Can DreamWorks recapture some of that Oscar magic that saw it -- albeit in another incarnation -- win the big prize three years in a row as a stakeholder in American Beauty, Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind?