Commentary: Globes impact boxoffice and Oscar noms

Ron Howard on directing 'Frost/Nixon'

Awards action: The Golden Globe nominations' immediate impact is the kind of boxoffice boost that best picture-drama nominees like "Frost/Nixon," "Slumdog Millionaire" and "The Reader" and best acting nominees like "Doubt" and "Milk" enjoyed as they expanded or opened last weekend.

As always, there was great value in being able to advertise Globe nominations as a reason for moviegoers to go to see those films. After all, the public recognizes the Globes as an important award after seeing their star-studded telecasts over the years. In fact, the Globes are probably the only movie award other than the Oscars that people who aren't in the film industry know about. There's also a less obvious benefit to doing well in the Globe noms and that's the way in which they impact on Academy members who are thinking about what films they're going to nominate a few weeks from now.

Unlike the Hollywood Foreign Press Association members whose job it is to see films throughout the year, Academy members are so busy making movies they typically don't have much time to watch them. At year-end when they suddenly have to start catching up with films in order to figure out which ones to nominate they face the perfect storm of there being too many movies and way too little time.

It's a great advantage for them to know which films the HFPA has nominated for Globes consideration because this greatly reduces the list of pictures they need to see. Because of the way the Academy schedules its nominations, Oscar voters have almost no time in which to see movies. This year's Academy calendar calls for nomination ballots to be mailed Fri., Dec. 26 and to be returned by 5:00 p.m., PT on Mon., Jan. 12.

In case you think that's more than two weeks time in which to vote, think again. Many Academy members will be away on family winter holiday trips to places like Aspen and Maui between Christmas and New Year's. When their nominations ballots arrive in the mail, they won't be home to fill them out nor will they be attending screenings or watching DVD screeners. Yes, some really diligent voters may pack a few screeners to look at while they're away, but not everyone will have access to DVD players and big screen TVs. And, frankly, not everyone wants to take the time to watch films -- many of which are dark, depressing dramas -- while they're celebrating the holidays with their families.

The calendar really works against Academy members this year because with New Year's Day falling on a Thursday it means people will be coming home Sun., Jan. 4 to get their kids back to school the next day. That means they'll only have from Mon., Jan. 5 through Th., Jan. 8 or, perhaps, Fri., Jan. 9 to consider their nominations before mailing their ballots so they'll arrive by Mon., Jan. 12 in time to be counted. Now you tell me, how many movies can you see over the course of four or five nights?

What typically happens is that Academy members take the time to see the films they feel are must-sees and those are the ones that have done well with the Globes. They'll look at those screeners first or they'll RSVP to attend screenings of a few of them. That's how they'll deal with all those films competing for their last minute consideration.

The best thing the Academy could possibly do to improve the nominating process would be to give its members more time in which to see movies in January. When the Academy moved the Oscars from late March to late February in 2004 the new truncated schedule resulted in nominations taking place about a month earlier than before.

There's been talk recently that the Academy could move its 2009 Oscars from February to March to try to avoid being torpedoed by a potential Screen Actors Guild strike the same way the Globes were annihilated by last year's Writers Guild of America strike. If such a change were to happen, the Academy would be wise to give its members a longer time in which to make their nominations.

That, in turn, would enable them to see more films, including some that may not have resonated with Globes voters. It would also give Academy members time in which to consider some mainstream studio films that don't generally get into the Academy Awards. These are, of course, the films that the people the Academy hopes will watch the Oscars have probably gone to see during the year. Nominations for such films could make a big difference in the ratings for Oscar's big night.

"Frost/Nixon" follow-up: Talking recently to Ron Howard about the making of Universal, Imagine Entertainment and Working Title's Oscar contender "Frost/Nixon," I asked if he began thinking about how to open up Peter Morgan's play for the screen when he first saw it performed onstage in London.

"I literally had this instinct after seeing it at the Donmar Warehouse, which is a small theater with a remarkable reputation," explained Howard, who directed the film and produced it with Brian Grazer, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner. "Michael Grandage's direction was vivid and dynamic. As much as I was losing myself in the production, I was almost dying to grab a camera and step up on stage and bore in on what these actors were doing. It was remarkable work even then and this was just a few days into the opening of the run.

"I felt that aside from taking all of David Frost's globetrotting and just putting him in airports and airplanes and in Australia and at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, the real way to open this up was to bore in on the nuances not only of Frost and Nixon, but also the supporting characters and work to broaden the suspense surrounding the interviews because everyone had a lot at stake. It wasn't only Frost and Nixon with their careers on the line."

In the movie Howard avoids endorsing one side or the other in the struggle between Frost and Nixon to come out on top in their series of intensive television encounters in 1977. "It's not about good guys and bad guys," he told me. "I appreciate the fact that the script's approach occupies the gray areas of this event. It really is about two lone wolves with their own agendas and given who they are their egos and their intellects and their position in the world at that moment. These interviews really were tantamount to a life-and-death struggle. They might look to their team (for) support, but these were men marching to their own beat."

In making the movie Howard worked, of course, with Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, who'd already done over 350 performances of the play in London and in New York. Obviously, their roles were deeply ingrained in them by the time they shot the movie. Asked how that impacted on his approach to directing them, Howard noted, "Our rehearsal period turned out not to be rehearsal at all. Usually I'm pretty ambitious and thorough about wanting to be pretty formal about rehearsals. But in this case it turned more into a discussion. It was a case of my trying to accomplish two things."

The first of these, he said, "was to understand and access everything it was that these guys had learned about their characters. It turned out that there were a number of choices that simply didn't work onstage, but were really valid and interesting. That was exciting. I was eager to employ those choices as much as possible in the movie. But the other thing was to really gain Michael and Frank's trust and (for them to) understand that what I wanted to do with the scenes was not come up with an on-the-day definitive performance. I really wanted them to put their final stamp on the characters and make it sort of the final exploration and let myself and the cinematographer, Sal Totino, capture everything it was they had to offer and to trust that I was going to take the rawest material surrounding their characters and go work with it."

Neither Langella nor Sheen, he added, ever "dropped a line. There was never a take that wasn't valid or interesting. So every time I would go in and talk about it and we would roll the cameras at another time it was always an exploration. It was always born out of an idea or something that I would see in a take and I'd say, 'Let's go a little further with that' or something that they would feel that maybe they hadn't felt about the character onstage that they wanted to try. It was fun and exhilarating and people would gather around and look over my shoulders at the monitors. It was just bravura acting take after take."

Because "Frost/Nixon" is a period piece there were additional challenges in shooting. "Especially on a budget," he emphasized. "We were lucky that the Beverly Hilton Hotel had renovated and gone retro so we could shoot their lobby. We even shot inside the Frost suite. Not everything took place in his suite, but portions of it (did). So without having too much in the way of art direction we were able to shoot the hotel and the front of the Cinerama Dome (for a scene in which Frost attends the premiere of the 1977 film "The Slipper and the Rose: The Story of Cinderella," which he executive produced). The front of Casa Pacifica, Nixon's home hadn't changed very much, and we gained access there. That was not only important in terms of authenticity, but also it helped our budget."

Although Nixon's long gone, Frost is alive and still on the scene. Asked if that affected him in making the movie, Howard replied, "Sir David had seen the play a number of times. Peter Morgan had spoken to him a good deal. He'd answered questions in the spirit of helping with research. And he'd expressed quibbles. So while there was nothing contractually expected of me, I certainly felt that I owed it to David Frost to talk to him and hear what he had to say about our adaptation of the script and so forth and I did that."

What were Frost's thoughts about the screenplay?" He had a few quibbles, mostly about things in the front half of the script -- things that had been simplified and consolidated -- and some factoids that were slightly off that he helped correct," Howard told me. "But I think he felt very good about the adaptation overall and I think the weirdness of seeing a portion of your life condensed and focused into a narrative shape was something that he'd already reconciled himself to through the play. In fact, I think that he, to me, feels even better about the way he's portrayed in the movie version because we make a little more out of the entrepreneurial bravado of the whole enterprise and make it clearer what he personally had at stake.

"And also, I think, that Michael Sheen's performance for cameras is much more nuanced and more naturalistic and probably easier for a guy like Frost to look at than looking at somebody doing a version of him on stage, which naturally has to be a little bigger and more physical and reaching for the back row."

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