Commentary: Oscar noms make Globes an early winner

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Oscar outlook: You may think it's too soon to be talking about Oscar winners, but that's not entirely true.

Looking at Academy members' best picture nominees there's a case to be made for the Golden Globes being an early winner for having helped focus Oscar voters' attention on "The Reader." Unlike its fellow nominees, The Weinstein Co.'s "Reader" didn't resonate with Producers Guild of America or Screen Actors Guild voters as the awards season moved forward in January. All that it really had going for it were the best picture-drama and best director noms that the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. handed it Dec. 11. "Reader's" best picture Oscar nod should make distributors even more aggressive next year about getting into the Globes' best picture-drama race.

This reinforces what I've pointed out here before -- the Globes noms have a tremendous impact on Academy members because they come out when the Oscar crowd's just starting to think about what films they need to see in order to make their own nominations. It's typically a stressful time for Academy voters because many of them are getting ready to go on winter vacations and they know they must send in their ballots soon after they return in early January. They generally haven't seen most of the movies competing for consideration and they've only got a limited amount of time to devote to attending screenings or watching DVD screeners at home. A Globe nomination is meaningful because it's really a warning that this is a picture you need to see if you're serious about voting, which I believe most if not all Academy members are.

"Reader's" best picture-drama Globe nod came as a surprise at the time, just as its best picture Oscar nomination is a surprise now. There were other films back in early December that Hollywood handicappers thought had a better shot at a Globes best picture nom -- like Miramax's "Doubt," Warner Bros.' "The Dark Knight," Warner Bros.' "Gran Torino" or Disney and Pixar's animated "Wall-E." Another of the titles being talked about at the time was DreamWorks and Paramount Vantage's "Revolutionary Road," which did wind up with a Globes best picture nom but isn't an Oscar best picture nominee.

When I asked one of the HFPA members I know what accounted for "Reader" being nominated he replied that the group has a "large German contingent" that not only liked the movie but was familiar with the German novel by Bernhard Schlink that it's based on. That Globes nod plus the accompanying best director nomination for Stephen Daldry has served "Reader" very well. Academy members clearly recognized the need to see it and that's what it took to get their vote. The film's Holocaust related storyline is one that tends to resonate well with Academy voters as it has once again.

That's not to say that "Reader" has any advantage going forward now in the Oscar race. If anything, it's the underdog -- although that's sometimes not a bad position to be in. When you look at how the five best picture Oscar contenders have fared in other key contests you find that Paramount's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," Universal, Imagine and Working Title's "Frost/Nixon," Focus Features' "Milk" and Fox Searchlight, Warner Bros., Celador Films and Film4's "Slumdog Millionaire" are all best picture nominees in the PGA and SAG races. In particular, the fact that "Reader" didn't get a SAG best ensemble cast nod, the Guild's equivalent of a best picture category, isn't good news since actors make up the Academy's largest voting branch.

"Reader" did, however, manage to get into the Academy's best directing race. It's Stephen Daldry's third nom after "Billy Elliot" in 2001 and "The Hours" in 2003. On the other hand, Daldry's the only one of the best directing Oscar nominees who doesn't also have a DGA nod. David Fincher ("Benjamin"), Ron Howard ("F/N"), Gus Van Sant ("Milk") and Danny Boyle ("Slumdog") are all competing in the DGA race. The fifth DGA nominee is Sam Mendes ("Revolutionary"), who isn't in the Oscar race. Given the strong historic connection between DGA and Oscar success, it certainly doesn't help "Reader" to not have that nomination.

The other category that Oscar watchers typically point to as a sign of how things may ultimately go is film editing. The rule of thumb is that you need a film editing nomination (but not a win) in order to win best picture. This time around "Reader" is the only best picture nominee that's not competing in the film editing category. The fifth nod there went to "Knight," which many observers expected would get into the best picture race. In all honesty, I wasn't one of them. I liked the picture but always felt its real shot was a supporting actor nod for Heath Ledger, which it did receive and is likely to win.

A best picture nod for "Knight" would actually have been in the Academy's best interest since with over $531 million in domestic ticket sales it was last year's biggest film by far. If "Knight" had landed a best picture Oscar nomination it would have been the one nominee that most viewers across the country would have actually seen and that they'd have a rooting interest in. That's something that would almost certainly have helped boost ratings for the telecast.

Actually, in a recent survey by the movie website Fandango, which sells tickets to more than 16,00 screens, 71% of those responding said "they'd be more inclined to watch this year's Oscar telecast if 'The Dark Knight' gets a nomination for Best Picture." That's the kind of audience the Academy really can't afford to lose.

It's a point that was made earlier this week in a USA Today article headlined "Batman may rescue Oscar ratings from the doldrums." The piece noted that "more than a few observers ... are rooting for 'The Dark Knight' to nab the granddaddy nomination. They see the film as a bridge between populist and artistic fare and a breakthrough for comic-book films, which have never been nominated for best picture." Now you have to figure that if USA Today knows this and we know it Academy members are aware of it, too. It's certainly to their credit that they didn't hand "Knight" a best picture nod to try to pump up the show's ratings, but maybe they should done just that.



Fandango's research should come as a wake-up call to the Academy. The same study also found that 81% of those polled felt "the Academy's past picks were out of touch with the choices of the mainstream moviegoing public." There's no question that in recent years Oscar's best picture noms have been very critics group driven and, by definition, that tends to mean films that not playing to mainstream audiences. As USA Today's article noted, "Though no one is calling for the Oscars to become a popularity contest, critics say the Academy has developed a bias against public favorites."

Last year's telecast delivered an all-time low audience of about 32 million viewers, which clearly reflected a lack of interest in the top nominees. Not surprisingly, in the same Fandango poll 29% of the group said "they didn't watch last year's show because they hadn't seen the nominated movies." This year's group of best picture nominees hasn't been seen very widely, either and that's not an encouraging sign. "Benjamin Button" is the one exception, having grossed over $104 million domestically. "Frost/Nixon," which is just going wide this weekend, has done under $10 million thus far. "Milk's" grossed around $21 million. "Reader's" taken in around $8 million. And "Slumdog's" total is about $45 million. That's not the kind of best picture race that promises to get viewers excited enough to stay up to find out what happens.

Of course, you can argue that Academy members need to nominate the films they feel good about and they can't think about the consequences of voting for pictures that the television audience hasn't seen or, in some cases, even had an opportunity to see because of their limited release patterns. I've said for years that what the Academy needs to do is add a People's Choice-type of award that would honor the year's best mainstream movie -- not with an Oscar but with some other newly invented sister award that would effectively broaden the universe of movies that are celebrated with awards on the telecast. Given that the Academy moves at a snail's pace, it could take years for such an idea to catch on.

Meanwhile, there are other things the Academy can do to optimize its chances of improved ratings. Its host selection is one good example and that may work to its advantage this year. Fandango's poll found that 59% of the respondents said they were "more likely to watch with Hugh Jackman as the show's host."

Another factor the Academy can control is who the show's presenters are. Viewers do like to get a look at famous faces handing out the big night's awards. They don't, however, enjoy the artificial banter between those celebrities. Fandango's survey found that 26% of those responding said such banter was one of their pet peeves about the show.

In any case, I was stunned to see a recent news report that the Academy doesn't plan to announce any of its presenters prior to the Oscar telecast. A spokesperson for the Academy's been quoted as saying, "There will be fantastic movie stars that appeal to a whole range of movie lovers and fans of our show. We're just not going to tell you who they all are."

I'd have loved to have been a fly on the Academy wall during the discussions that led to that decision. What could they possibly have been thinking and what could the argument have been for keeping such major news secret? Letting people know who will be presenting awards is a major part of the promotion for shows like the Globes and the SAG Awards. Keeping it all under wraps isn't likely to make people so curious they feel they've got to tune in Oscar night.

Sundance screenings: In next Wednesday's column I'll be talking to Ondi Timoner about her documentary "We Live in Public," which had its world premiere at Sundance earlier this week and is one of 16 titles in the festival's Documentary Competition. The film focuses on Internet pioneer Josh Harris, who in the '90s launched Pseudo.com, the first Internet television network, and went on to create a vision of the future in which a hundred people lived together on camera for 30 days over the Millennium.

For those who are at Sundance and haven't as yet seen "Public" there are still two screenings remaining -- Friday at 9:00 a.m. at Temple Theater (Park City) and Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at Holiday Village Cinema (Park City).

See Martin Grove's Zamm Cam movie previews on www.ZAMM.com.
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