Scorsese's odds boosted by DGA's flock of first-timers

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DGA directors: The awards season typically swings into high gear once the Directors Guild of America announces its best directing contenders and that's certainly the case this year with Tuesday's nominations.

The DGA nominations have to be perceived as the best of all possible worlds for Martin Scorsese and "The Departed." Not only is the guild's nod likely to translate into Oscar nominations for best picture and director, but with the DGA having gone with first-time DGA nominees to fill all four of its other slots, Scorsese's prospects of winning seem to be significantly enhanced.

As well-regarded as Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Babel"), Bill Condon ("Dreamgirls"), Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris ("Little Miss Sunshine") and Stephen Frears ("The Queen") are, because they're first-time DGA nominees they're less likely to win than Scorsese, a veteran DGA nominee with six earlier nods -- "The Aviator" in 2005, "Gangs of New York" in 2003, "The Age of Innocence" in 1994, "Goodfellas" in 1991, "Raging Bull" in 1981 and "Taxi Driver" in 1977.

Although the DGA honored Scorsese with its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003, he's never actually won the guild's award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures. Over the years Scorsese has lost to John G. Avildsen (for "Rocky" in 1977), Robert Redford (for "Ordinary People" in 1981), Steven Spielberg (for "Schindler's List" in 1994), Rob Marshall (for "Chicago" in 2003) and Clint Eastwood (for "Million Dollar Baby" in 2005).

This time around given the DGA's slate of first-timer nominees, we've got to at least start out by saying the scales are tipped in Scorsese's favor. Had the DGA handed Clint Eastwood a nomination for "Letters From Iwo Jima," as many Hollywood handicappers had been anticipating, or had the DGA bestowed a double nomination on Eastwood by also honoring him for "Flags Of Our Fathers," as a handful of insiders had insisted could happen, Scorsese would have faced formidable opposition. But in the absence of any DGA nod for Eastwood, this seems likely to be Scorsese's year -- certainly on the DGA front and, quite possibly, on the Oscar front, too.

The DGA nomination is critically important to achieving an Oscar nod and winning the DGA race almost always leads to Oscar success. On its web site the DGA proudly calls its award "a near perfect barometer for the Best Director Academy Award" and points out that "51 times since the DGA Award's inception in 1949 the DGA Award winner has won the corresponding Best Director Academy Award."

Scorsese's track record with Academy members isn't any better than his history with the DGA. He's had five Oscar nominations for best achievement in directing -- for "Raging Bull" in 1981, "The Last Temptation of Christ" in 1988, "Goodfellas" in 1991, "Gangs of New York" in 2003 and "The Aviator" in 2005. Scorsese lost in each of those races -- to Robert Redford (for "Ordinary People" in 1981), Kevin Costner (for "Dances With Wolves" in 1991), Roman Polanski (for "The Pianist" in 2003) and Clint Eastwood (for "Million Dollar Baby" in 2005).

It remains to be seen, of course, if the Academy's directing branch of about 376 feature film directors will echo what the DGA's much broader group of over 13,000 members has just announced. Most of the DGA's members aren't feature film directors, but they're all people whose orientation is to directing. The guild's membership includes assistant directors, unit production managers, technical coordinators, associate directors, stage managers and production associates. For the most part the DGA members are a younger group than the members of the Academy's directing branch, who typically have many years of feature film directing under their belts. Insiders believe that age differences between the two groups account for the variations in taste that they have displayed over the years.

Not everyone expects the Academy's nominations to mirror the DGA's. When I spoke to one Academy member shortly after the DGA nominations were announced, he insisted, "I can't believe in my wildest imagination that the 400 directors  in the Academy are not going to nominate Clint Eastwood. When you're dealing with the Directors Guild you're dealing with a fairly young crowd because of all the ADs. And the directors (branch members) are older. So when it comes to the Academy, it's going to be Eastwood. No question."

He pointed to the DGA noms for "Sunshine" and "Dreamgirls" as ones reflecting the younger age level of the guild's membership. "I think when you get to the Academy it's going to be different," he maintained. "If you look at the history of the Directors Guild and the Academy there's usually a shift of at least one (nomination between them). And usually it skews older. I think 'The Queen' and 'The Departed,' there's no question about (them being nominated). But anything can happen with the rest of them." By the way, although Frears is a first-time DGA nominee, he did receive an Academy nod in 1991 for directing "The Grifters."

Will the DGA nominations have much affect on how Academy members vote? "Not really," he replied. "They have to have the ballots in by Saturday. Most of the Academy members I know voted already. They didn't vote the first day. We've had the ballots for two weeks."

But what about the members who haven't voted yet? Will they be influenced by the DGA's choices? "No," he said. "They'll be influenced more by their friends than by what the Directors Guild did. Look at the history of what they nominate and what the directors nominate. It's different."

Indeed, there can be significant differences between the DGA's noms and the Academy's directing branch's noms. The DGA nominees for feature films released in 2004 were Eastwood (who won for "Baby"), Marc Forster ("Finding Neverland"), Taylor Hackford ("Ray"), Alexander Payne ("Sideways") and Scorsese ("Aviator"). The Oscar directing nominees for the same year were Eastwood (who won for "Baby"), Scorsese, Hackford, Payne and Mike Leigh ("Vera Drake"). Other factors could be involved beyond age, but Forster, who was born in 1969, probably had greater appeal to the younger DGA membership than Leigh, who was born in 1943, and probably had greater appeal to the older Academy membership.

Last year was unusual in that there were no differences in the DGA and Academy directing branch nominees. The DGA nods for feature films released in 2005 went to Ang Lee (who won for "Brokeback Mountain"), George Clooney ("Good Night, and Good Luck"), Paul Haggis ("Crash"), Bennett Miller ("Capote") and Steven Spielberg ("Munich"). The Oscar best directing nominees also went to Lee (who won), Miller, Haggis, Clooney and Spielberg.  

As to who's likely to win the directing Oscar this time around, the Academy member I spoke to (who's not, by the way, in any way connected to Warner Bros. or "The Departed" or Scorsese) shot back, "It's going to be Scorsese. There's no question in my mind who's going to win. This is Scorsese's year."

But, I countered, people say that every time he's nominated. "This is his year," he repeated. "I think 'The Queen's' going to win the Oscar and I think Scorsese's going to win best director. I strongly believe it and I've never believed it before."

What's different about Scorsese this year? "I think he made a picture which is a lot different than pictures he's made before," he explained. "It's a story you can get involved in. It's done with a lot of humor, which he's never done before. And I just don't think anybody has a passion for anybody else. So I think he's going to win. Believe me, this is the first year that I've thought he'd win."

Of course, that could depend on whether the Academy noms for directing that are announced Jan. 23 are different from or the same as this year's DGA noms. An Eastwood nomination (or two?) could change the voting dynamics. If, on the other hand, instead of nominating Eastwood the Academy nominated Paul Greengrass for the critically acclaimed "United 93," they'd be putting another first time nominee in the mix and that could work to the advantage of Scorsese, the long-overlooked veteran. So, stay tuned as they say and we'll soon see who Oscar's best directing nominees turn out to be.

Filmmaker flashbacks:  From Oct. 24 and 26, 1988's columns: "The market for horror genre product has changed greatly the last few years. It's now much harder to do well with such films without an established franchise with a popular villain like 'Friday the 13th' and Jason or 'A Nightmare on Elm Street' and Freddy.

"'I think we've become a very character conscious society," observes David Kirschner, producer of MGM/UA's new horror thriller 'Child's Play,' directed by Tom Holland and starring Catherine Hicks and Chris Sarandon, opening at 1,200 screens Wednesday, Nov. 9. "'It seems that from children to adults we like to hang our hats on a character we can be familiar with and that's really our intention with 'Child's Play.' It seems from our testing that with kids chanting 'Chucky, Chucky, Chucky' through the course of the film and yelling at the screen, we seem to be on our way with this film, having created a character that kids love to hate ?'

"'What the cards have revealed is that kids say this is a very classy horror film,' Kirschner points out. 'It's much less dependent on a bosom or an eyeball being poked out as opposed to what I think is very good filmmaking in the Hitchcock sense -- great story, camera, editing and film score to convey a sense of fear as opposed to an ice pick and an ax to horrify an audience. There is one horrific scene in the piece. I think it's tame compared to other things that are out, but it seems to evoke tremendous screams from parties of all ages from what I've seen sitting in our test markets all across Southern California ?'

"How did 'Play' originate? 'I said to my development person that I was looking for something with dollars,' replies Kirschner. 'There was an episode of 'Twilight Zone' (about dollars) that had scared me when I was a kid. I had never seen a film that had brought a doll to life the way our technology today is enabling us to do. And I'd been reading Victorian short stories about a doll that comes to life. She said this was a story that had basically been passed on by every studio. I took the story and loved the idea of it. I repackaged it, if you will ?'

"Kirschner took 'Play' to one of the majors, which was interested and was negotiating there when his agents introduced him to Jerry Weintraub, then chairman of UA, and Tony Thomopoulos, UA's president at the time. 'They listened to the story. They asked if that deal was closed and I said, 'It's not closed, but we're negotiating.' They called my agents and said, 'We want this ?' It turned into a little bit of a bidding war and UA won."

Update: "Child's Play" opened very nicely to $6.6 million Nov. 11, 1988 at 1,377 theaters ($4,781 per theater) and went on to gross $33.2 million domestically. It ranked 34th in terms of the year's top grossing movies. It spawned four sequels, none of which were distributed by MGM/UA or did as well at the domestic boxoffice as the original. The list includes: "Child's Play 2" (Universal, 1990) did $28.5 million; "Child's Play 3" (Universal, 1991) grossed $15 million; "Bride of Chucky" (Universal, 1993) took in $32.4 million; and "Seed of Chucky" (from the Rogue Pictures division of NBC Universal's Focus Features, 2004) did $17.1 million.

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