Oscar ballots in voters' hands, but who's seen films?

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Awards analysis: Nominating ballots that went out Tuesday should have turned up by now in Academy members' mailboxes, but many of those voters aren't home to fill them out.

It's just as well because, frankly, who's seen all those movies yet? Many Academy members who celebrate the holidays in places like Aspen, Maui, the Caribbean or Europe won't be back in L.A. until after New Year's. When they return they'll find their ballots waiting for them -- along with a ton of other mail, including 50 or more screeners that distributors hope they'll sit down and watch immediately.

That, of course, is sheer fantasy because like anyone else just back from vacation Academy members will be inundated with things to catch up with involving their work and families. It will be days before they can devote any time to seeing all those movies they missed during the year.

The problem is that although movies are screened throughout the year, many Academy members are too busy making their own movies to spend time watching somebody else's films. When they're working, in fact, many filmmakers are on location and don't even have an opportunity to get to screenings. By year-end the list of pictures they haven't seen can be lengthy and catching up with them all in the weeks prior to Saturday, Jan. 13, when ballots are due back is very difficult.

If you figure that Academy members who get home from vacation Tuesday, Jan. 2 need at least two days to deal with pressing business and personal matters, that makes Friday, Jan. 5 the first night they'll be able to watch a movie. If they're returning their ballots by mail, they'll want to post them by Wednesday, Jan. 10 to be sure they're received by the 13th. That would leave enough time for them to see five to seven movies, depending on how dedicated they are to seeing what's out there before they vote.

In many cases, there could be 35 or 40 films on their screener stacks that they haven't seen yet. Few people can fit that many movies into the limited number of days they have in which to do their viewing. So what do they do?

They do what the rest of us would do. They make a new stack of screeners that includes the films they've heard good things about, the movies their best friends made or starred in and the titles that have already received recognition from major critics groups and in the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's Golden Globes nominations. This new stack of DVDs could still include a dozen or more titles and that's still too many films to watch in such
a short period of time. So some of those are still bound to go unseen. And that, of course, is the kiss of death because Academy members are unlikely to nominate pictures they haven't seen.

This is really the key flaw in the Academy's concept of a compressed Oscar season. In adopting its new schedule a few years ago the Academy addressed the issue of whether too much time was being spent campaigning for Oscars, but failed to recognize that having all those weeks of campaigning was helpful to Academy members because it gave them time in which to see the movies seeking their consideration.

The new schedule works to the advantage of films that opened earlier in the year and are already in DVD release. Oscar voters have had the opportunity to see those movies in theaters or to see them on DVD at home prior to the year-end glut of awards product. It also favors films arriving in mid-to-late December from high profile filmmakers who automatically attract Academy members' attention. Everything else suffers, creating a very unlevel playing field.

One of the results of this challenging situation, according to some Hollywood handicappers, is that Academy members are now taking more time to vote. In the past, it was thought that ballots would be mailed back within a few days of being received. Now, however, it's believed that Academy members are waiting as long as possible to vote in order to see as many films as they can before having to make a decision. Getting to those voters late in the game when they're making up their minds is the smart new Oscar marketing strategy.

While every single Academy vote is valuable, some votes are especially important. The actors' branch, for instance, has the most clout of all because it's the Academy's largest -- with 1,277 members out of 5,808 last year. "Crash's" best picture victory is widely believed to have reflected the actors' preference for it over "Brokeback Mountain," which dominated the critics' awards. Prior to winning the best picture Oscar, "Crash" was honored with the Screen Actors Guild's best ensemble cast award, the guild's equivalent of a best picture vote and a good sign that "Crash" was now a prime Oscar contender. Another case in point is the best picture Oscar victory in 1998 for "Shakespeare in Love" over "Saving Private Ryan," which had been the critics' favorite. SAG members also embraced "Shakespeare" by awarding it the guild's best ensemble cast award.

The Academy's directors branch is much smaller than the actors branch -- there were only 375 directors branch members last year -- but its support can be very helpful. Academy members know that films don't make themselves, filmmakers do. Films that are nominated for best picture but that don't also have a best directing nomination are typically considered to be fighting an uphill struggle. Members of the Academy's directors branch are also members of the Directors Guild of America. The DGA, however, has a much wider membership with nearly 13,000 members, most of whom are not feature film directors. The guild's membership includes many directors of television programming, unit production managers, first and second assistant directors, technical coordinators, tape associate directors, stage managers and production associates. Although most DGA members don't direct theatrical features, how they vote in the DGA's annual awards competition has a significant impact on the Oscar race.

Typically, the correlation that people point to is the one between winning the DGA's best director award and winning the best directing Oscar. On the DGA's website we're told that, "The DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film has traditionally been a near perfect barometer for the Best Director Academy Award. Only six times since the DGA Award's inception (in 1948 when the Screen Directors Guild began handing out quarterly awards) has the DGA Award winner not won the Academy Award."

Those six exceptions include: 1968 when Anthony Harvey won the DGA Award for "The Lion in Winter," but Carol Reed won the Oscar for "Oliver;" 1972 when Francis Ford Coppola was the DGA winner for "The Godfather," but Bob Fosse was the Oscar winner for "Cabaret;" 1985 when Steven Spielberg won the DGA Award for "The Color Purple," but Sydney Pollack took home the Oscar for "Out of Africa;" 1995 when Ron Howard won the DGA Award for "Apollo 13," but the Academy honored Mel Gibson for "Braveheart;" 2001 when Ang Lee won the DGA Award for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," but Steven Soderberg won the Oscar for "Traffic;" and 2003 when Rob Marshall was the DGA winner for "Chicago," but Roman Polanski won the Academy Award for "The Pianist."

A more interesting correlation, however, is the one between a director winning the DGA award and that director's film winning the best picture Oscar. If we look back at the 16 year period from 1990 through 2005 there have been only four occasions when the film whose director won the DGA prize wasn't honored with the best picture Oscar.

Those exceptions include: 1995 when "Apollo 13" was the DGA winner, but "Braveheart" won the best picture Oscar; 1998 when "Saving Private Ryan" won the DGA Award, but "Shakespeare in Love" captured the best picture Oscar; 2000 when "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" was the DGA winner, but "Gladiator" won the best picture Oscar; and 2005 when "Brokeback Mountain" received the DGA Award, but "Crash" won the best picture Oscar. In every other year, the best picture Oscar went to the film whose director had won the DGA Award. So 75% of the time over the past 16 years the film that captured the DGA Award has prevailed in the Academy's best picture race.

No wonder Oscar marketers were up in arms last week when the DGA made and then reversed its decision to allow studios to send DVD screeners to its members. Putting screeners in the hands of DGA members would increase the chances that those films will be seen and that, needless to say, could boost their likelihood of attracting votes. For distributors with films whose directors haven't received recognition from critics groups or the HFPA, the pressure is on to do everything possible to get them a DGA nomination.

Here's how the half-dozen leading best picture Oscar contenders in this year's wide open race have been faring in terms of recognition for their directors:

(1) Miramax Films' "The Queen" received a Golden Globes best picture-drama nomination and a best director nom for Stephen Frears. It also received best picture and best director nods from the Broadcast Film Critics Association and from the Chicago Film Critics Association. It won the New York Film Critics Online votes for best picture and director. The London Film Critics gave it nominations for British Film of the Year as well as British Director of the Year as well as a nom in the broader race for Film of the Year, but not in the broader Director of the Year competition. The Toronto Film Critics Association named it best picture and split their best director vote between Frears and the two directors of the Belgian drama "L'Enfant." Bottom line: A healthy five and a half matches for best picture and best director out of seven races.

(2) Warner Bros.' "The Departed" received Globe nods for best picture-drama and for Martin Scorsese for best director. It also is a BFCA nominee for best picture and best director. The Chicago Film Critics Association and the Boston Society of Film Critics both voted it best picture and named Scorsese best director. The National Board of Review chose Scorsese as best director, but gave best picture to "Letters." The New York Film Critics voted Scorsese best director, but awarded best picture to "United 93." The Las Vegas Film Critics Society chose "Departed" as best film and Scorsese as best director. The Satellite Awards honored "Departed" as best picture-drama, but split best director between Eastwood for "Flags" and Bill Condon for "Dreamgirls." The London Film Critics nominated "Departed" for Film of the Year and Scorsese for Director of the Year. The Southeastern Film Critics Association and the Florida Film Critics Circle both named "Departed" best film and Scorsese best director. The Washington, D.C. Area critics and the Dallas-Forth Worth critics both awarded best director to Scorsese while naming "United 93" best film. The Phoenix Film Critics' best director award went to Scorsese, but "United 93" was voted best picture. Bottom line: A promising eight matches out of 14 races.

(3) Universal Pictures' "United 93" did not get a Globe nom for best picture or for Paul Greengrass as best director. It did, however, get BFCA and Chicago Film Critics Association nods for best picture and best director. It won the New York Film Critics Circle's best picture award, but Martin Scorsese won best director for "The Departed." In the L.A. Film Critics' vote, Greengrass won for best director, but "Letters" won best picture. The Washington, D.C. Area Film Critics Association gave its best picture win to "United 93," but Scorsese won best director for "The Departed." The London Film Critics nominated "United 93" for Film of the Year and Greengrass for Director of the Year. The Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics named "United 93" best picture, but gave Scorsese best director. The San Francisco Film Critics Circle awarded Greengrass best director, but gave best picture to "Little Children." The Phoenix Film Critics' best picture award went to "United 93," but Scorsese was named best director. Bottom line: Three matches out of 10 races.

(4) Warner Bros.' "Letters From Iwo Jima" did not receive a best picture-drama Globe nod, but Clint Eastwood is a best director nominee for "Letters" (as well as for "Flags of Our Fathers," which also is not in the Globes' best picture-drama race). The National Board of Review named "Letters" its best picture, but voted Martin Scorsese best director for "The Departed." The BFCA nominated "Letters" for best picture and Eastwood for best director. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association voted "Letters" best picture, but named Paul Greengrass best director for "United 93." The Chicago Film Critics Association did not nominate "Letters" for best picture, but nominated Eastwood for best director. The San Diego Film Critics voted "Letters" best picture and Eastwood best director. Bottom line: Two matches out of six races.

(5) Paramount Vantage's "Babel" received Golden Globe nods for best picture-drama and for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu as best director. It received a BFCA best picture nod, but did not get a best director nomination. The Chicago Film Critics Association nominated "Babel" for best picture and Inarritu for best director. Bottom line: Two matches out of three races.

(6) Paramount and DreamWorks' "Dreamgirls" received a Globe nom for best picture-musical or comedy, but Bill Condon did not get into the best director race. The BFCA nominated "Dreamgirls" for best picture and Condon for best director. The Satellite Awards named it best motion picture-comedy or musical and Condon tied with Eastwood (for "Flags") for best director. Bottom line: One and a half matches out of three races.

As of now, the possibility of a best picture-best director one-two nominations punch looks particularly good for "The Queen" and "The Departed." Everybody else needs to get their directors out on the Oscar promotional trail. The DGA nominations will be announced Tuesday, Jan. 9 and Academy members who haven't returned their nominating ballots by then could be influenced by what the directors decide.

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Sept. 30, 1988's column: "There was a wistful feeling in the air at MGM's party Tuesday night for Henry Winkler's 'Memories of Me,' but it had nothing to do with the film or the reception. The melancholy stemmed from the fact that we were partying in what once was MGM's executive dining room and had just seen the movie screened in what used to be MGM's Cary Grant Theater. Just being there on what's now the Lorimar lot brought back memories of earlier and happier days at MGM.

"The Hollywood crowd on hand Tuesday night -- including every shade of blonde known to man -- is a tough audience to touch with a picture like 'Memories,' which will make real moviegoers reach for their handkerchiefs. "It played pretty well and people were really caught up in the emotion of the picture,' Michael Hertzberg, who co-produced the film with Billy Crystal and Alan King, told me afterward. 'This is a murderous audience. Thank God they only assemble it once for each picture. But they were very, very riveted.

"'The regular audiences are laughing, crying, laughing, crying. We played it in Toronto, Dallas and San Francisco and the more working-class the audience is the more emotionally moved they are. It either gets huge laughs or some laughs and very deep emotions. So we're very hopeful...'

"A number of key scenes in 'Memories' take place on the Paramount lot. When I ran into Greg Morrison, MGM's president of worldwide marketing, I asked him how that happened to come about. 'I think that's because of (Paramount being) Henry's kind of home base,' explains Morrison. 'This film was made for $5.9 million, which is rather extraordinary in today's world. The reason they used Paramount for the scenes was that Henry got a deal, I think, and simply because MGM didn't have that facility to offer...'

"'This was a script that traveled many miles through many studios in this town,' Morrison notes. 'It finally landed with Billy Crystal and when Billy teamed with Alan King it became a reality because King is part of Odyssey Entertainment, which produced the film. So it was the end of a long line for this particular script. I think there are many, many agents and actors who've read the script in many drafts.'"

Update: "Memories of Me" didn't do memorable boxoffice business. It opened Sept. 30, 1988 to $1.4 million at 723 theaters ($1,919 per theater) and went on to gross about $4 million domestically.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.updatehollywood.com.
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