Vanishing voters

We are approaching crunch time for two of the world’s most publicized, yet idiosyncratic, electoral events — the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes. With all the money and hoopla at stake it’s downright amazing that few stop to ask one simple question: Who’s doing the voting? The Golden Globes purportedly reflect the collective opinion of the Foreign Press Association, but it remains a mystery how many of the voters are really “press” and how many are headwaiters or manicurists who magically become movie aficionados once a year.

The estimable Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences isn’t very helpful about explaining its constituency either. What proportion of the voters remain active in the industry, for example? The proliferation of free videos mailed to Oscar voters this year provides one clue. Perhaps the studios suspect that Academy members tend to be either too old or too lazy to go out and see the movies for themselves.

Many filmmakers find this trend deeply troubling, one of them being Arthur Hiller, the president of the Academy. To judge a movie through its video, says Hiller, is like evaluating a painting from a slide. “How can you get a sense of the cinematography?” he asks. “How can you judge the music?”

The problem is exacerbated by the uneven quality of the videos. “It’s kind of TriStar to send me ‘Mr. Jones,’ ” says veteran producer Edgar Scherick, “but it happens to be unwatchable because of deplorable color reproduction.” Disney thought so little of the video of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” that it sent out replacement copies with better sound and color.

Quality aside, it’s also somewhat unsettling to watch a video that carries so many threats and warnings. Disney videos warn you in four different places of the massive fines that await you for unauthorized showings, and even insist you return the cassette upon demand. Similarly, the riveting plane crash that opens “Fearless” is marred by repeated threats of $ 250,000 fines. On “The Fugitive” the warning never goes away at all — it’s on screen throughout the show.

If the studios believe Academy members are too feeble to go to the movies, surely they’re also beyond the age where they’d resort to video piracy. Perhaps it’s time to listen to Arthur Hiller: Let’s cut back the video onslaught and encourage people to go back to the theaters.

PALPITATIONS AT PARAMOUNT

The atmosphere at Paramount this week reminds me of the final hours before the fall of Saigon. A sort of frightened euphoria grips executives and filmmakers on the lot. There seems to be a common assumption that, no matter who wins, everyone will be fired anyway and every “green light” will turn red. “I’m rooting for Barry Diller,” confides one executive, adding quickly, “but I don’t know why. If he wins there will be a clean sweep — the guards will be lucky to survive.”

Sherry Lansing, who deserves an Oscar for optimism, has done her best to keep the studio humming. Film offers for top stars are still crackling from Paramount fax machines. Filmmakers nonetheless are apprehensive about a change in ownership. Says one: “I’m going to mark my dailies, ‘To whom it may concern.’ ”

The true drama this week revolves around this question: Will Sumner Redstone, renowned as a prudent New Englander, raise his bid to a level he knows to be imprudent? One clue: Redstone flew first class to Los Angeles last week (albeit in a less desirable middle seat) rather than buy a business class ticket. Most billionaires, of course, fly around in their own planes, but not Redstone. Observes one friend: “If Sumner last week decided to charter a plane, then I think he’d top Diller’s bid. If he traveled first class but couldn’t even rate a window seat, that means he may be standing pat.”

FLIP-FLOPS AMONG INDIES

The departure of Larry Gordon from Largo last week served as a reminder of the high casualty rate among the most recent generation of independents.

Imagine and Castle Rock both were started with great hoopla and managed to make some distinguished films, but neither fulfilled one key criterion of success — i.e., making much money. Now both entities have been reconstituted with new financial structures and objectives. Largo, by contrast, never managed to create a solid slate of films, and its relations with Japanese parent JVC were always dicey. Then, too, Largo suffered from a more basic problem.

“I’ve spent my entire career pitching projects to studios,” Gordon told me a couple of years ago. “When I find myself listening to other people’s pitches I think back on my own and don’t believe a word they say.” The result: Gordon, a witty and cunning man, had a terrible time committing to new projects. Now he’s setting himself up in a more conventional producing situation at Universal, where he can do what he likes best — pitch and produce.

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