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Off to the Races

The major studios are determined to reclaim Oscar from those annoying independents, and this year’s nominees could show how well they’ve succeeded.

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Could this be the year that the studios take back the Oscars? The majors have gone to war with spendthrift abandon and appear to be in their strongest position since 1991 to keep all five Best Picture nominations out of the hands of the upstart independents who’ve been stealing the show. “On the Oscar show, the clips will show nothing but battle scenes,” says Variety’s Oscar analyst, Pete Hammond. Few indie films boast enough cultural clout to turn back the studio’s armies; they may have to settle for a few acting and technical nods.

One reason the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided that in 2004 and 2005 the Oscars telecast would take place in late February—three weeks earlier than usual—was to put a crimp in the promotional blitz created by the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, and the British Academy Awards, to name a few. Take away the last month of hoopla, the thinking went, and maybe the 5,800 Academy members would return to voting their consciences.

Then Motion Picture Association of America president Jack Valenti’s hastily considered screener ban, intended as an anti-piracy measure, further limited exposure opportunities for smaller pictures. The ban was eventually amended so that videocassettes could be sent to Academy voters. But fewer Academy members are receiving them: Only those who signed up for watermarked studio cassettes are eligible, and 1,100 Oscar voters still haven’t sent in their signed agreements, mainly because they’re unwilling to risk expulsion from the Academy should one of their tapes fall into the hands of pirates and be traced back to them.

The withdrawal of screeners that used to go to critics also plays to the studios’ advantage. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s 90 members are scrambling to see movies before the December 15 Golden Globe–nomination deadline. Every day they face competing screenings: Will it be The Last Samurai followed by a Tom Cruise press conference, or The Fog of War, Errol Morris’s Vietnam documentary? The studios have the cash to commandeer theaters, arrange for stars and directors to attend screenings, and run endless glossy trade ads and double-truck quote ads in New York and L.A. newspapers. Most indies’ pockets just aren’t that deep.

The Los Angeles film critics tried forcing Valenti to relent on screeners for critics; Valenti remained firm, and the L.A. critics ended up canceling their awards. The result? The New York film critics, who vote on December 15, will have much more impact on this year’s Oscar race, if they choose to boost the fortunes of such off-center favorites as 21 Grams, American Splendor, or Lost in Translation.

kh?±\ the pressure is great enough that the firewall against screeners outside the Academy is being breached. French producer Michele Halberstadt took matters into her own hands and sent cassettes of Monsieur Ibrahim, featuring a comeback performance by Omar Sharif, directly to the Screen Actors Guild, which shipped them to its members. (Executives at distributor Sony Pictures Classics insist they had nothing to do with the subterfuge.) Not to be outmaneuvered, Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein promptly announced that he would send out screeners, even if it meant being fired by his boss, Disney chairman Michael Eisner. And last week, the Independent Feature Project and a group of independent producers filed a $25 million suit against the MPAA for anti-competitive practices. The no-screeners decree has turned into a debacle—just as the Oscar race is beginning to heat up.


Jude Law and Nicole Kidman in Cold Mountain  

BATTLE OF THE COSTUME EPICS: This year, Miramax is devoting its considerable moxie to Oscar-winner Anthony Minghella’s Civil War drama, Cold Mountain. (For the purposes of this discussion, an $80 million war movie qualifies as a studio film.) According to one journalist who had seen the film at press time, Cold Mountain is “epic, violent, sexy, with great performances by Jude Law, Renée Zellweger, and Brendan Gleeson.” A Best Picture shoo-in.

Another obvious choice is Twentieth Century Fox’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, a $150 million seafaring adventure complete with authentically thunderous warship battles. The Patrick O’Brian adaptation won four-star raves for master auteur Peter Weir and master thespian Russell Crowe, both working at the height of their powers. (Financial partners Universal and Miramax are also rooting for this one.)


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