Film: Oscar Talk

Current Oscar campaigns replace gifts with intellect

Lucie M. Rice

High-brow celebrity-sponsored screenings for Oscar hopefuls are questioned but good for the movie business.

LOS ANGELES — Most people think Oscar campaigning is all about hype. There is another side, one far different from the inane talk show appearances and "for your consideration" advertisements appearing in newspapers and trade publications Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

It's a classy, almost scholarly side of Oscar campaigns, one that goes mostly unnoticed outside L.A. but is nevertheless hugely influential. It attempts to take serious movies seriously by having those involved in making them attend public screenings, tributes and lectures — often at highbrow locations like museums and cinemathèques — in order to discuss their work and themselves. Surprisingly — and this is the controversial part — the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, which sponsors the Oscars, opposes such events.

These scholarly happenings draw on considerable star power, as a recent invitational screening for The Motorcycle Diaries, about a road trip taken through South America by a young, pre-revolutionary Che Guevara, showed.

"I just want to say how proud I am tonight as the executive producer to be introducing this film to you," the ever-boyish Robert Redford said before a capacity crowd at the cinema at an upscale mall called The Grove. "I was incredibly impressed by what a wonderful story it was."

Redford then talked about negotiating film rights with Guevara's widow. And he also pleaded with the audience to judge the film, a Spanish-language road movie, not as an art or foreign movie, but just as a good one.

In shorthand, that meant he's hoping any Academy members present would consider it for a best-picture nomination despite its subtitles. (Because it is a multi-country co-production, it is not eligible for a foreign-language film Oscar.) Director Walter Salles and charismatic young actor Gael Garcia Bernal, who plays Che, participated in a post-screening discussion.

With Oscar season in full swing in L.A., such events occur almost every night. Many are for VIPs, but others are open to the public, giving everyone a chance to obtain inside knowledge about the people responsible for the movies considered most Oscar-worthy.

In the most unusual cases, the movie-going public can literally hear them sing their film's praises — as Kevin Spacey did with his Dec. 6 concert here of Bobby Darin songs. He plays Darin in Beyond the Sea, which he also directed. Spacey also curated a special program of Darin's television appearances currently at Beverly Hills' Museum of Radio & Television.

At the nonprofit American Cinemathèque's two theaters, the Egyptian in Hollywood and the new Aero in Santa Monica, December and January will bring screenings with personal appearances from all sorts of actors hopeful of Oscar nominations: Jeff Bridges (Door in the Floor), Reese Witherspoon (Vanity Fair), Mark Ruffalo and Laura Dern (We Don't Live Here Anymore), John Travolta (A Love Song for Bobby Long), Tea Leoni (Spanglish), Thomas Hayden Church (Sideways) and even long-shot Val Kilmer (Alexander).

Not to be outdone, Los Angeles County Museum of Art presented Oliver Stone talking about Alexander and the Los Angeles Public Library presented, to an overflowing crowd of several hundred, I (Heart) Huckabees' writer/director David O. Russell talking about his "existential comedy" with Robert Thurman, Tibetan Buddhism scholar and chair of Columbia University's Department of Religion (and, also, Uma's dad).

Sometimes the discussions are veritable literary salons filled with juicy, newsworthy insider stuff. One example occurred at the UCLA Hammer Museum when Kinsey writer/director Bill Condon shared observations with novelist T.C. Boyle, whose latest novel, The Inner Circle, is also about late Indiana University sex researcher Dr. Alfred Kinsey. They both revealed the difficulties of creating art about a still-controversial, real-life figure.

Boyle said the Robert Frost estate denied him use of a poem, presumably because it didn't like Kinsey. He used Shakespeare instead. "We have not heard from the Shakespeare estate," he dryly noted. And Condon said Lucy Arnaz wouldn't allow him to use an I Love Lucy clip for his film. " 'My mom would never be associated with a man like him,' " Condon said she told him.

Valuable as such events would seem to be, the Academy has made them technically illegal for its 5,800 members. (A majority reside in Los Angeles and nearby cities.)

Its regulations state that "screenings must not be accompanied by receptions, buffets or other refreshments, nor should such screenings be accompanied by any kind of live participation by anyone associated with the film. Screenings containing such additional components that are intended for the general public or other non-Academy audience must not be promoted to the Academy membership.

"Companies that sponsor screenings containing such live components that are held in a commercial theater and are open to the ticket-buying public may not permit Academy members to gain free admittance using their Academy membership cards."

But there are plenty of ways around that — and film producers and distributors pursue the loopholes relentlessly. They have to. Increasingly, adult-oriented dramas rely on fourth-quarter theatrical releases in Los Angeles and New York to begin to find national audiences and make money. Their marketing campaigns depend on Oscar nominations and victories, and they use other awards and nominations to build momentum and influence Academy voters.

Academy members first vote — within their separate branches for most categories — to nominate Oscar contenders. Then, the entire body selects winners. This year, Oscar nominations are announced on Jan. 25 and awards are handed out on Feb. 27 in a televised ceremony hosted by Chris Rock at Hollywood's Kodak Theatre.

Many of the other organizations that give earlier awards, such as the Hollywood professional guilds, have memberships that overlap with the Academy's. As a result, Academy members receive invitations — never addressed to them specifically as such members — to attend all manner of Q&A screenings under other organizations' aegis.

So, Academy members do end up attending public events or hearing about them from friends. "Anything done in Los Angeles is arguably influential toward the Academy," says Mark Urman, U.S. distribution chief for New York-based ThinkFilm. "Because the highest density of Academy-member population is in Los Angeles, any citizen you touch and impress is capable of turning to his next-door member, who is guaranteed of being an Academy member, and say, 'I saw a great film.' "

Since such events potentially have intellectual value, it seems curious that the Academy opposes them. "Every year we think of refining the rules, and we have discussions of the many loopholes in this area," explained Rick Robertson, its executive administrator. "But it's important to know the Academy's position on this. We're trying to maintain a level playing field, and not everyone can do this on the same terms."

One worry is that such appearances can make Oscar races become beauty contests. "If I have an engaging or charismatic personality, does that affect your judgment of the work?" Robertson asked. "Or what if the filmmaker is aloof and doesn't make such a good impression? We don't want personality having anything to do with it. While there may be a genuine exchange, it should be about what's on the screen."

Urman understands that point-of-view. His company is releasing (in December in Los Angeles and New York) the mature drama The Assassination of Richard Nixon, starring Sean Penn as a would-be assassin and plane hijacker, and has three documentaries on the Academy's nomination short list — The Story of the Weeping Camel, Tell Them Who You Are and Born into Brothels.

"There are events throughout the year at which directors and writers appear, but top stars generally come out only at Oscar season," he said. "Actors are normally too busy and frankly too precious with themselves to go into civilian-presentation situations. Yet come the fourth quarter of the year, they'll go to Bar Mitzvahs.

"I have an actor in a film this year who I would think is a very viable best-actor candidate, and his name is Sean Penn. He does not campaign," Urman continued. "He did two in-person sort of things that were both specifically timed to take place before the presidential election, earlier than they would usually happen.

"One took place in Boston, and it was strictly for college students, and it was his opportunity to speak about the politics of the film. He did one in Los Angeles, and that was for the (movie) industry community. But following the election, where he could no longer influence what he hoped to happen, he stopped. He believes such things are naked attempts to win prizes and he's purer than that. I wish sometimes he wasn't."

Los Angeles-based Steven Rosen is a contributing writer for CityBeat. His last story was an interview with actress Hilary Swank.

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