Even in the best of circumstances, it's a miracle the insincere lovefest that normally characterizes the Academy Awards doesn't put people off movies altogether. But this year, the glitz of the Oscars on March 21 will be masking one of the most contentious ceremonies in the 72-year history of the Academy.
Nielsen-challenged ABC, which broadcasts the event, is no doubt anticipating protests outside, and perhaps inside, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, over the Lifetime Achievement award to director turned McCarthy-era canary Elia Kazan. Not to mention the threat of pickets by former Miramax employees suing the company for overtime pay. But those are not the only issues that have people in the movie business disturbed about the industry's most important awards. Complaints range from how the introduction of videocassettes has influenced the way nominated films are judged by the Academy's 5,557 voters to what many view as Miramax's over-the-line campaign to boost Shakespeare in Love's come-from-behind chances of taking the Best Picture award from Saving Private Ryan, released by DreamWorks and Paramount. The payoff may well be that the Oscar goes to two hours of Elizabethan froth instead of to one of the most gut-wrenching war movies ever made; indeed, by Tuesday of last week, Miramax publicist Andrew Stengel was confidently declaring that his little romantic comedy had become "the front-runner," having earned an amazing thirteen Oscar nominations (compared with Ryan's eleven) and love sonnets from the critics.
Given the millions of dollars at stake, you might assume the film industry's governing body would have developed a system to protect the nomination and voting process from undue influence. Ever since the first Oscar trade ad was placed in 1935 by MGM for Ah, Wilderness!, the Academy has attempted to deal with overzealous Oscar lobbying. Identified as overkill have been such efforts as studio-paid phone-bank operators' personally calling voters, and studios' lavishly packaged propaganda. In recent years, Miramax has often been one of the chief culprits. "There's no rule against campaigning," says one top industry executive, "but the Academy doesn't like it thrown in their face."
Miramax has consistently pushed the envelope in promoting its films both to the public and within the industry, and this year has been no exception. The Disney-owned "independent" has two Best Picture nominees -- Shakespeare in Love and Life Is Beautiful (which is also a nominee for Best Foreign Language Picture). Miramax pays a fleet of ultraveteran Hollywood publicists (who also happen to be Academy members) -- including Warren Cowan, Dick Guttman, Gerry Pam, and Murray Weissman -- not to generate press coverage but to schmooze their prominent Academy colleagues. As cronies of the Academy's graying voters, they are paid not just during the five-month Oscar season but nearly year-round -- a practice unheard-of elsewhere in the industry. No other studio hires as many outside publicists, particularly publicists well past retirement age. Since December, Cowan has arranged a series of odd-couple dinners, underwritten by Miramax, for Roberto Benigni, the director and star of Life Is Beautiful. Suddenly, there was Benigni dining with Kirk Douglas. Benigni and Jack Lemmon. Benigni and Elizabeth Taylor -- all of them Cowan's clients and influential Academy members.
"We are not in any way in the vote-buying business," says Miramax L.A. president Mark Gill, "but we are very assertive about publicity and promotion for our movies year-round, including during the Academy season."
Last month in New York -- after the Oscar nominations were announced (a time when every film company in Hollywood watches its Academy p's and q's) -- Überflack Bobby Zarem hosted a "welcome to America" party at Elaine's for Shakespeare director John Madden that was paid for by Miramax. Among the partygoers that night were at least three Academy members: director Sidney Lumet, screenwriter-director Jay Presson Allen, and screenwriter David Newman. The party would appear to violate a 1997 Academy rule that deemed it improper for studios to host receptions or dinners for Oscar nominees to which Academy members are invited. Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein maintains that the party was not a violation of the rules because it was not specifically aimed at Academy voters. "I'm sorry there were three Academy members present," says Weinstein, "but it was a press event, and you have to have celebrities at a press event to get the press there."
Academy executive-administrator Ric Robertson says the rules were developed to "address broad approaches to the membership," conceding that the Miramax party was "a gray area." But he also confirms that the Academy received a complaint about the Elaine's event.
When Saving Private Ryan was released last summer and became an instant critical and audience success, it was hard to find anyone with anything less than stellar to say about Steven Spielberg's war baby. But journalists and critics on both coasts report that they were recipients of negative Miramax spin, including comments from Weinstein himself, who opined to at least one major critic that Ryan "peaks in the first twenty minutes" and "wouldn't hold up in December."
Weinstein denies ever having criticized the Spielberg film. "I would never stoop to that level," he told New York. "I would have to betray my own feelings about Private Ryan, which I adored." Indeed, last week Mark Gill told me Harvey had "instructed all of us to affirm only our positive attributes" -- i.e., not to diss Ryan. But that same day, Tony Angellotti, a freelance publicist working exclusively for Miramax, phoned one of Hollywood's most prominent reporters and, during an offer to give him "a little guidance when you write your Oscar story," began "totally trashing Saving Private Ryan," this journalist told me, adding, "I couldn't get off the phone fast enough." Angellotti calls that account "a lie," though he adds, "My job is to analyze, and if I said anything negative about Private Ryan or any other film, it was in the context of what someone else said."
"Miramax for some reason thinks that because they are media darlings they're above scrutiny," says a competitor, noting that the major studios increasingly worry about campaign backlash. "We wouldn't get away with this stuff for two minutes."
Then there is the ubiquity of Miramax's advertising for its Oscar nominees, especially Shakespeare. True independents might spend up to $250,000 on an Oscar campaign; the majors, $2 million. Miramax is estimated by competitors to have spent at least $5 million on its campaign for Shakespeare. But Miramax marketing executive Marcy Granada points out that, unlike Private Ryan, which did most of its business last summer and fall, Shakespeare is only now in wide release; that means advertising in newspapers and television to support the box office that may be confused with advertising to win Academy votes, which she says is comparable with Private Ryan's. Variety publisher Gerry Byrne says that as far as trade advertising goes, "if you isolate Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare in Love, I'd say it's a spending horse race." Still, it's the studio-level spending by the so-called indie that gives Miramax its bigfoot reputation in the industry.
Miramax isn't to blame for what may be the biggest scandal of the Oscars, and one affecting the Shakespeare-vs.-Private Ryan race at least as much as any platoon of publicists: that the Academy has done nothing to stop voters from judging Oscar-worthiness almost exclusively on the basis of videocassettes instead of seeing movies in theaters. Indeed, it encourages the practice.
Videocassettes were introduced to level the playing field between the major studios, which could afford cushy and ample screenings, and the independents, which could not. The result was a dramatic shift in the nominations away from mainstream blockbusters to low-budget films like Tom and Viv and Breaking the Waves. But too many Oscar voters don't see movies on the silver screen; I know some Academy members who haven't set foot in a movie theater all year. Yet Saving Private Ryan is a big-screen epic if ever there was one, while Shakespeare in Love is as comfortable on the small screen as Gwyneth Paltrow was in Joseph Fiennes's cramped bed.
And having the tape doesn't guarantee that a film will be watched at all. Some voters have confided to me that they have no intention of viewing American History X to judge Best Actor nominee Edward Norton's performance because they don't want to be subjected to the movie's violence (that aversion could also influence voters' willingness to look at Ryan). And they admit that they didn't screen all of the 60 or more cassettes that began arriving from film companies in December.
All of this demonstrates the inability -- or unwillingness -- of the Academy to really monitor the industry's most important event. "We don't want to be Big Brother," Ric Robertson states emphatically. Instead, the pictures may still be big; it's just Oscar that got small.