Being shortlisted thrills Oscar nominees, but will they get their Kodak Theatre moment?


The uncharacteristically gray sky that hung over Los Angeles on Academy Award nomination morning was perhaps a fitting reflection of the gloom over the town, as it waited almost as eagerly to learn the fate of the Oscar show itself. But little could dampen nominees' exhilaration as they awakened to find they'd made the shortlist for Hollywood's most prestigious award.

"We are just thrilled," declares Focus Features CEO James Schamus, whose "Atonement" had been overlooked by most of the major critics groups but received seven Academy Award nominations, including best picture, best supporting actress and best adapted screenplay. "The Oscar show isn't for another month. And if it turns out there isn't a ceremony, well, we had a blast at my bungalow at the Chateau the evening of the Golden Globes, and (on Oscar night, Feb. 24) we'll have a good time no matter what."

That's also the game plan for Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker, who's cheered by noms for "Persepolis" in the best animated feature category and "The Counterfeiters" in foreign language. The nominations are valuable, awards show or not, he says. "It's going to affect ('Persepolis') business and hopefully help it cross into a mainstream audience. With 'The Counterfeiters,' that category can really help a film that's unknown and of high quality."

Brad Bird is equally upbeat. Disney/Pixar's "Ratatouille," which he both wrote and directed, was recognized in five categories, including best animated feature, best original screenplay and best original score. While acknowledging that uncertainty about the telecast has had an effect on "the whole mood of the town," he remains optimistic. "I'm pinning my hopes on the writers guild and the producers sitting down and figuring it out."

The encouraging news is that at press time, the WGA and producers were talking again. (In an irony few observers could fail to notice, several nominated directors also wrote and received nominations for their screenplays.) But as long as the final outcome of the talks remains in doubt, fears over the marketing fallout from a canceled or "low-key" Oscar ceremony will haunt movie executives.

Rick Sands, COO at MGM, which released the Sidney Kimmel-produced "Lars and the Real Girl," echoes the sentiments of many of his colleagues when he notes, "Viewers watch the telecast and are influenced by it. Without (the big, traditional ceremony), it's going to be harder to generate heat on a lot of the movies."

That's especially true for films that are out of the mainstream, such as the quirky "Lars," which, despite stellar reviews and an Oscar-nominated screenplay from Nancy Oliver, has struggled at the boxoffice.

Paramount Vantage's "There Will Be Blood" is another case in point. Considered one of the year's top contenders, it received eight Oscar noms, including best picture, director, actor and adapted screenplay. Emotionally dark and artistically audacious, it isn't an obvious selection at the local multiplex. "It's a fabulous film, but not an easy film," concedes the picture's set decorator, Jim Erickson. "It's a filmmaker's movie."

Words like that make marketing executives shudder. Artistic recognition is nice, but cashing in at the boxoffice is the bottom line for any studio or film company. And winning an Oscar on worldwide television in a splashy way increases that likelihood.

If the telecast is canceled or downsized, the most immediate loser will likely be ABC (and, by association, parent company Disney), which stands to forfeit millions of dollars in advertising revenue. NBC reportedly lost $10 million-$20 million when the Golden Globes ceremony was canceled a few weeks ago.

According to Mark Urman, head of U.S. theatrical for ThinkFilm, a nomination can prove almost as helpful as an actual win in the documentary category. With two Oscar-nominated documentaries in the running this year, his company is competing against itself. One of them, "War/Dance," tells the uplifting story of three Ugandan children, their lives upended by civil war, who join a music and dance competition; and on the strength of that nomination, ThinkFilm has already planned to reopen the film in select markets. The second picture, "Taxi to the Dark Side," details the imprisonment, torture and death of an innocent Afghan taxi driver at the hands of the American military.

The sheer number of nominated war-related documentaries (Michael Moore's "Sicko," for the Weinstein Co., is the exception on the shortlist) makes their select viewership even more choosy. According to Urman, "A nomination says, 'OK, this is one of the great ones.' In fact, we timed the opening of 'Taxi to the Dark Side' in such a way that the film will, God willing, capitalize on Academy momentum."

"There's no question that the on-air exposure of a traditional Oscar telecast is valuable," Urman says, "but I'm honest enough to know that the documentary category is when a lot of people take a bathroom break. So not having the traditional ceremony might not cost us quite as much in lost exposure as it would one of the more glamorous categories."

Publicly, even executives who have films in the "more glamorous" categories are putting their best face forward. "The Oscars are an annual reminder of our love for movies," says Universal Pictures chairman Marc Shmuger, whose studio garnered eight nominations, plus another eight for its specialty division Focus Features. "While I do think there is some short-term fallout from (the current situation), in the long term, the movies will be in fine shape."

Shmuger declined to speculate on where he would be on the big night, if not at the Kodak Theatre. Bob Berney, president of Picturehouse, which picked up three nominations for "La Vie en Rose" (in costume design, makeup and best actress for Marion Cotillard), also had trouble imagining that he wouldn't be there. "But if for some reason we're not, I think I'll be at a small dinner, celebrating quietly, which is what we did the night of the Golden Globes. We went to Chateau Marmont, and it turned out to be a really fun dinner."

And what about the individual award nominees who are up for editing, art direction, score and visual effects? Everyone interviewed for this article expressed solidarity with the striking writers. "Sure, everybody would like to see a ceremony, but there are larger issues at hand," offers editor Jay Cassidy, nominated for his work on Paramount Vantage's "Into the Wild," which also received a nomination in the supporting actor category for Hal Holbrook.

"We have compassion for those who have been out of work," agrees Scott Farrar, part of the visual effects team nominated for its work on DreamWorks/Paramount's "Transformers," which received nominations in sound and sound editing as well.

"I have a lot of writer friends, and I feel for them," declares first-time nominee Amanda Micheli, who, along with filmmaking partner Isabel Vega, is up for best documentary short for their "La Corona." "We don't get to revel in the glory, but we also don't have to worry about getting a dress."

Cynthia Wade and Vanessa Roth are also nominated in the documentary short category, one that naturally owes less of an allegiance to the striking writers, even if they are sympathetic. Wade and Roth's film, "Freeheld," follows a New Jersey police detective who is dying from cancer and who spends the last year of her life fighting a policy that will not allow her to transfer her pension to her same-sex domestic partner. "We hoped to gather attention (for the subject) in time for the upcoming elections," Wade confesses. "If there's not an Oscar ceremony, there's less of a launch for the film."
The general attitude of the nominees was perhaps best summed up by Francisco Bello, nominated for the documentary short "Salim Baba" along with Tim Sternberg. Asked whether the current uncertainty casts a pall on their nomination, Bello paraphrases an old Chris Rock joke: "When you get tickets to see Springsteen, it's not so much about the concert as it is that you got the tickets to see Springsteen. Well, we got the tickets."

Time -- along with the WGA and the AMPTP -- will tell whether they actually get into the concert.

Additional reporting by Gretta Parkinson, Carolyn Giardina and Randee Dawn.