COLUMN ONE : What the Oscar Hath Wrought : Once there was just one awards show in Hollywood. Now, money, marketing and ego have fueled a plethora of prizes. Some fear overkill.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Will Tom Hanks or John Travolta be named best actor? Will Jodie Foster or Susan Sarandon win? And at the end of the evening, will "Forrest Gump" emerge as the top movie of the year?

The Oscars?

No, it's the inaugural "Blockbuster Entertainment Awards" in June, sponsored by the video rental chain. Like tonight's granddaddy of award shows, this will be a prime-time network special with envelopes opened breathlessly and more than enough thank-yous to go around.

The Oscars remain in a league of their own, with nearly 80 million TV viewers expected tonight, drawn to the glamour and prestige that 66 years of history bring with them.

But fledgling awards such as Blockbuster's reflect the gluttony of Hollywood's newest cottage industry--giving awards to itself.

What started in 1929 as a low-key banquet of lobster, terrapin and fruit at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel has proliferated into more than 50 award presentations. The trend is fueled by television ratings, marketing desires, fund-raising needs and ego.

Once, there were only the Oscars for movies, the Emmys for television, the Grammys for music and the Tonys for the stage. Now, for music alone, there are the Grammys, the Billboard awards, the MTV awards, the Country Music Assn. awards, the American Music Awards, the Soul Train awards, the World Music Awards and the People's Choice Awards. Next year the Recording Industry Assn. of America will join in.

Make a family film and you might win a "Teddy Bear" from Movieguide magazine. Make a movie about animals and a Genesis Award could be yours.

In the past six months, nearly 70 "lifetime achievement awards" were presented in the entertainment industry. In 1994, with six years to spare, Harrison Ford was proclaimed by theater owners as the "Box Office Star of the Century," presumably beating out Gable, Bogart and Garbo. Even Rodney Dangerfield, who made his name griping about how he gets no respect, took home a comedy lifetime achievement award last month.

"We even had proposed an award show for awards shows," said television veteran Dick Clark, who, having produced about 150 such programs, is Hollywood's acknowledged king of the genre.

Which raises the question: Will it all prove to be too much of a good--or, more often, mediocre--thing? Earlier this month, the Grammy show, much maligned in recent years for being stodgy, saw its ratings drop 27% from the year before. Industry executives partly blame the dip on competition from hipper shows. Even television's own Emmys have suffered from ratings problems. There does seem to be a limit to the number of award shows that viewers will watch, as ABC discovered when its much-hyped American Television Awards flopped two years ago.

No industry enjoys congratulating itself as much as Hollywood does. Economics--more than ego stroking--is the major reason. Award programs, which can cost from less than $1 million to as much as $4 million to produce, are cheaper to deliver than, say, a TV movie of the week. The shows are considered advertiser-friendly because they usually lack controversy. And, despite the glut of shows, most generally pull in respectable ratings, which executives attribute to continued public infatuation with celebrities. All told, they say, a network can turn a profit of $750,000 or more from a successful show.

"Generally, they do better than the programs they replace, which is the first important measure," said David Poltrack, CBS senior vice president of research and planning.

Those numbers may be changing. Producers complain that costs are climbing, especially to accommodate the stars who are critical to the success of each show. Although presenters don't receive a fee and appear largely for the publicity, musical performers can run up a big tab. The bill for singers with big production numbers can range from $50,000 to $100,000. Rap's Hammer once brought an entourage of 85 singers, dancers and workers who had to be housed and fed before an appearance on the American Music Awards.

Awards also serve as a marketing gimmick, providing a platform to show clips as well as plug upcoming projects. Action star Chuck Norris once candidly told the media assembled backstage at the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.'s Golden Globes awards that he showed up to promote an upcoming film. "You gotta ask me about my movies. That's why I'm here," the actor told reporters.

Do awards themselves have a financial value? By the time many are handed out in the spring--the prime time for award shows--most eligible movies released the previous year are either in video stores or in the homestretch of their box-office runs. That has led some studios chiefs to complain that awards should be moved up to January to better capitalize on the tail end of the holiday movie season.

It's hard to imagine that a smash such as "Forrest Gump"--which has taken in $315 million at the domestic box office--can do much better than it already has even if it wins all 13 Oscars for which it is nominated.

Where awards may help is with overlooked films, as well as those about to debut in foreign theaters. The box-office total for "The Shawshank Redemption" was stuck at $17 million when the movie picked up a best-picture nomination in February. The film has since added $7 million. Ironically, "Hoop Dreams" was helped by being snubbed in the Oscar documentary category because so many critics cried foul.

Still, outside of the Oscars, it's hard to find many awards that have a clear-cut economic impact. True, trade publications bulge with congratulatory ads. Stars' careers receive a boost and, in some cases, contracts call for bonuses to be given when something like an Oscar is won.

But, by and large, "what awards are is free publicity for a little bit," said 20th Century Fox Executive Vice President Tom Sherak. "But does it help a movie? I don't think they are a major factor."

Despite the glut of shows, award-snubbing stars such as Marlon Brando and George C. Scott are more the exception than the rule. Most stars show up, partly because there still is an aura of glamour surrounding awards. More important, few image-conscious stars want a reputation as a no-show.

"It's a major snub if you don't go," said leading Hollywood publicist Pat Kingsley, whose PMK agency has clients including Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise and Candice Bergen.

In the case of the People's Choice Awards popularity contest, stars show up after being told in advance that they will win.

With so many prizes, showing up can be physically taxing. Hanks, who has picked up seven awards for his "Forrest Gump" performance and is a favorite tonight for best actor, crisscrossed the country over three days last month to collect a Screen Actors Guild award on Feb. 25, an American Comedy Award on Feb. 26 and a National Board of Review award on Feb. 27 in New York.

The movie itself has averaged about two awards a week.

"By the time the Oscars come around, most of them are worn out," Kingsley said.

"We've gotten to the point where we are getting prizes for showing up. Half of the awards I have in my garage are ones I've gotten just for showing up," said Charlton Heston, whose honors range from a best actor Oscar for "Ben-Hur" to a lifetime achievement award from the Friars Club.

Heston was especially critical of the Screen Actors Guild for introducing its own TV awards show last month. The event was designed mostly as a fund-raiser.

"It's a bad idea. It's a waste. What is it for? The Screen Actors Guild is a union," said Heston, a former SAG president.

SAG President Barry Gordon countered that the awards, which raised an undisclosed amount of money for the union and its charities, was a morale booster for its members. "It was heartening to hear from so many of our members all over the country who were able to really feel part of an awards show for the first time," he said.

Some of the awards, especially those that don't take place under the glare of television lights, are designed as heartfelt tributes or even as camp. Last week, Movieguide presented its annual "Teddy Bear" family entertainment awards named after its Georgia-based publisher, Ted Baehr.

After dining on chicken ricotta, winners received a teddy bear and a plaque. To honor the winning "Forrest Gump," actor Mykelti Williamson, who played "Bubba" in the film, accepted a 400-pound box of chocolates that doubled as dessert for the luncheon.

Each year, Sherman Oaks advertising copywriter John Wilson and his friends in the "The Golden Raspberry Award Foundation" rent a theater and skewer Hollywood by recognizing the year's worst movies and performances.

Wilson begins his program with the opening credits, "Not the Academy Awards, not the Cable ACE Awards, not the American Comedy Awards, not the American Music Awards, not the Golden Globe awards. . . ."

So, why do viewers watch award shows?

Dick Clark's theory is that the typical viewer wants to see the stars goof up, misread the TelePrompTer or say something unexpected.

"First and foremost, you are looking for mistakes," Clark said. "It is a vestige of television gone by. It's live and unpredictable with surprises and a punch line. And, sometimes, a real long shot wins."

Robert J. Thompson, associate professor of television and film at Syracuse University, who cynically predicts that one day there will be a 24-hour-a-day cable channel devoted to award shows, believes that the proliferation stems from the lack of respect that many people have for our popular culture. Thus, award shows fill a need to honor even the trashiest of entertainment, such as soap operas.

"In a culture that publicly disdains its popular culture, somebody has to celebrate this thing and give it awards," Thompson said. "If nobody else will, they might as well do it themselves."

Publicist Michael Levine, who has represented stars including Barbra Streisand and Michael Jackson, says the shows also reflect the insecurities of entertainers.

"My experience in representing hundreds of celebrity clients has brought me to the conclusion that celebrities, even major ones, are kind of awards-obsessed. My bet is that many celebrities, especially hot younger ones, feel some guilt because they believe their fame is disproportionate to their achievements. Awards help validate them," he said.

CBS' Poltrack offers a simpler explanation: "The entertainment industry knows no end to its ability to award itself. We love awarding ourselves."

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