MCN Columnists
Leonard Klady

By Leonard Klady

All That Glitters


There are, to be honest, only so many things one can say about the Oscar race in this or any other year. The films and players obviously change and the details have a specificity but the basics are, well, the basics with a few caveats tossed in for color. It is not infinitely malleable.

That fact spawned a memory of an Oscar strategy meeting about a decade back when I was working at Variety. These sessions are invariably a quest to find a fresh angle. So, in that spirit I proffered an idea I felt was unique and doable.

What I outlined was a serious attempt to predict the outcome of the awards by employing standard polling techniques. The size and composition of the Academy membership is readily available information and I explained that by targeting a sampling of its 5,500 or so roster one could with a fair degree of accuracy predict the winners. That sampling was a little more than 100 people and I was confident that finding an appropriate number of people representing age, gender and discipline of the voters could be accomplished by the reporting staff contacting people on their regular call sheets.

As I described the nuts and bolts of such an endeavor I felt the group had a true appreciation for the actual process. But when I wrapped it up, there was a momentary silence. It was as if all the air had been sucked from the room. What quickly followed was a mixture of alarm and outrage as if I had despoiled something sacred. I attempted to put it into context by comparing it to political polls during presidential campaigns. Surely if the outcome of the leadership of the country can take this sort of scrutiny, the outcome of a movie context could withstand this type of attention. The papers reporters and editors could not be swayed.

A few years later The Wall Street Journal struck upon the same idea the year that American Beauty was named best picture. I was never able to coerce the precise methodology it employed but subtle hints indicated they were attempting to get a genuine sampling but in the end, when Academy officials got wind of what was going on, had to settle for numbers at the expense of demographics. Its poll, published the Friday prior to the ceremony, correctly identified seven of eight winners in Oscar’s high profile categories.

The Journal never repeated the exercise. It had proven its point and in doing so did not want to go through the grief and hassle of demonstrating the only true means of soothsaying the industry’s most prestigious honor.

Instead it was back to the business of employing runic signs, gut instinct, planted disinformation and the like disguised as dogged journalism.

There’s also a tendency to view award’s season as some sort of sporting competition in which films and individuals rack up points that eventually count toward determining who receives a trophy. At times it appears as if the artistic and technical achievements involved were of no consequence.

To some extent those of us that write about the competition for movie awards are incautious in our reporting. Days before the announcement of this year’s official ballot I found myself speculating about the composition of the final five in the best picture category. In a year with few clear cut favorites, I was nonetheless convinced that Brokeback Mountain, Walk the Line and Capote were guaranteed to make the short list.

While I hadn’t done any sort of painstaking research, my confidence was informed by among other things, the fact that I live and work in the community that determines the Oscar contenders. There’s also the fact that my wife is an Academy member and that most of the people I have breakfast with at the Farmer’s Market are also on the organization’s roster.

There were of course other indicators that came into play. For instance a glut of movie award shows precede the Oscars and can’t help but inform their composition. Additionally, the “for your consideration” ads that appear in trade publications pretty much tell the tale of what the film companies consider worthy of promoting.

So, despite the flood of stories that have bemoaned the fact that this year’s contenders haven’t embraced the Hollywood blockbuster, I decided to look at the relative box office stamina of those movies and concluded that in addition to the three previously mentioned movies that the additional two slots would be filled by Syriana and Match Point. In the end, I recorded the worst record of picking nominees for more than a decade.

If the exercise underlined anything to me it was that Oscar voting is not so much strategic as it is emotional. And by that I’m not referring to sentiment but personal experience and association.

The gang at the Farmer’s Market sees a lot of movies and is relatively unsparing in their observations of what works and misses in their humble opinions. There are disagreements to be sure but it’s pointless to employ forceful methods to coerce their perspective. Most of the Academy members I know are equally independently minded.

It’s also true that each has a soft spot for certain individuals they’ve worked with during their careers. In fact, one admitted to voting for an actor they knew even though they weren’t fond of the particular performance for which he was nominated. They were in that particular category swayed to vote for the body of work rather than the individual notation.

There is a tendency to view the Academy membership as a monolith that’s easily swayed by advertising and media coverage and it’s invariably a trap that yields no fowl. As a collective group they’re relatively savvy and time and again I’ve seen individuals and pictures fail to make the cut because insiders were aware of some unmentioned detail such as a credited writer that contributed little more than his name to the shooting script.

As Oscar winners only need a plurality of votes, one can gain the statuette with as little as 21% approval. So, from time to time, there will be what appear to be surprises. In fact, with the passage of time, what seemed so potent and meaningful when the votes were cast does not weather well.

Regardless of the outcome on Sunday, it seems to me that the Academy is confronting a number of thorny issues that threaten its supremacy as the premiere movie award.

Perhaps the most obvious is the fact that by the time the envelope is opened it all seems incredibly anti-climatic. The organization hasn’t been blind to that fact and shook off convention when it moved up its schedule by a month three years ago. The decision however did little to weed out the crowd of similar events that simply followed suit and crammed into a shorter season. The alternative prize givers have a greater mobility as most have considerably smaller memberships.

Logistically, if the Academy continues its calendar of nominations and screenings, there’s little that can be done to push up its award date. The radical solution would be to change its calendar to embrace a mid-year eligibility and see if the pack follows its lead.

Still, an even bigger problem is the show itself. The Oscars set the template for all subsequent events and though it hands out more honors than most, the ritual of clips, homages, presentations and the march to the podium is the hallmark of every event that precedes it. The Oscar telecast ought to look different and somehow needs to convey the fact that it’s statuette carries greater weight within the community. Band-aid solutions won’t work and it’s hard to imagine the organization and its officers can be pushed to effect tough-minded options or think outside the box.

Equally problematic is the fact that its core membership is increasingly disconnected to the movies and individuals it honors. The past decade has seen the virtual abandonment of the production of popular, prestige films by the Hollywood studios. Batman Begins, The War of the Worlds, The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter and Mr. & Mrs. Smith are more reflective of the work of Academy members than this year’s slate of nominees. But not even Academy voters can be convinced that these films represent the singular artistic achievements of 2005.

The motto of the fictitious Miracle Pictures (“If It’s a Good Picture, It’s a Miracle”) seems all too apt. The contemporary studio miracles occur by happenstance, blackmail or unbelievable endurance and that’s shameful. And the trickle down effect can be seen among acting nominees. Only two of this year’s 20 hopefuls can be considered movie stars and in those instances roles were taken for the challenge and scale plus ten percent.

What ails the Academy is simply reflective of an industry that’s evolved into a ruthlessly aggressive stalker of the bottom-line. Its movies are hollow and insubstantial with the nutritional values of a box of popcorn. The Oscars are no longer a celebration of Hollywood and, until a sea change occurs, the Academy Awards will have to make due with honoring its past and the fine work of outsiders.
March 4, 2006

– by Leonard Klady 

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