Business world takes uncommon interest in Oscars

February 25, 2011

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

By Rob Cox

The broad business community normally takes little more than a passing interest in Hollywood’s annual celebration of itself. But this year’s upcoming Oscars ceremony has executives and investors from Houston to Wall Street to Silicon Valley uncharacteristically nervous. The awards could elevate the profile of some movies that turn the spotlight onto some controversial industry practices.

Moreover, the success of these films — both critically and at the box office — might entice studio chieftains to further exploit the unsavory aspects of capitalism in ways that would put corporate leaders and entrepreneurs on the defensive for years to come.

Take the Best Documentary Feature category. Winning this Oscar can give smaller films a far wider platform. That’s what happened when “An Inconvenient Truth,” the documentary about Al Gore’s efforts to inform the public about global warming, took home a statue in 2006.

One of the nominees in the category this year, “Gasland,” is already giving energy executives heartburn for its polemical look at the practice of hydraulic fracturing. The technology known as fracking has unleashed a torrent of drilling investments across the country.

Josh Fox’s film suggests that fracking pumps noxious chemicals into the water supply and poses huge environmental and health risks. To make its point, the film depicts flames shooting out of the kitchen sinks of unsuspecting rural folk. The gas industry has issued a rebuttal. Fox, in an open letter this week, said an energy-backed group lobbied to make the film ineligible for an Academy Award.

Similarly, an Oscar for Charles Ferguson’s documentary “Inside Job” would give further oxygen to the film’s views about Wall Street’s wicked ways, including the assertion that regulators and prosecutors should subpoena prostitutes to understand how moral turpitude in the finance industry played a role in the financial crisis.

Of course, negative publicity doesn’t always hurt the bottom line. One of the nominees for Best Picture, “The Social Network,” portrays Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg as an ethically-challenged computer geek. Since the film’s theatrical release the company raised new funds that valued the website at $50 billion.

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