Oscar intrigue hitting the reality wall

THIS HAS BEEN a frustrating time for the press. The stories that everyone’s poised to write simply aren’t happening. Eminem didn’t get into a fist fight over gay rights at the Grammys. The writers haven’t told the studios to fuck off and march away from the bargaining table.

And then, of course, there’s the Oscars. The consumer press knows the Oscar story it wants to write — a tale of intrigue and betrayal. It is common knowledge that each year someone arranges to “steal” an Academy Award. The only question is, who’s this year’s thief?

As reporters dig into the story, of course, they inevitably encounter reality: Namely, that the Oscar race is, in fact, rather humdrum. The rules of war are rigorous and they are carefully enforced. As a result, the Oscar combatants are left with but one key stratagem that has long been a part of any political process: They must get out the vote.

All this is hard to accept for those who dip a toe into these waters but once a year. They look at the race and scratch their heads. “Why is it that the same people seem to face off year after year?” they ask.

Here’s Harvey Weinstein, yet again, playing his hand carefully as he glowers across the table at the DreamWorks trio. It might as well be a reprise of “Shakespeare in Love” vs. “Saving Private Ryan,” only this year Harvey is “Chocolat”-coated and DreamWorks finds itself in the toga trade.

THERE ARE OTHER players as well: The two Steven Soderbergh movies, “Erin Brockovich,” in all her macha glory, and “Traffic.”

And there’s also the jaunty, subtitled “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Since “Traffic” was partially funded by USA Films, and “Crouching Tiger” emanated from Good Machine and Sony Classics, no one can claim Miramax casts its long shadow over the entire field.

Still, the prospect of Harvey annexing yet another Oscar gives some people the crazies.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Patrick Goldstein traced the movie’s five Oscar nominations to what he termed a “shazzam” marketing effort.

David Brown, that movie’s venerable producer, responded that it was “insulting” for Goldstein to suggest Academy voters were so vulnerable to marketing magic. “I take great offense at Goldstein’s implication that the vote for any Academy member can be influenced by advertising,” he said.

And that’s where outsiders get puzzled. Clearly companies must believe in the influence of advertising, otherwise they wouldn’t spend millions to advertise. This year, additional funds were allocated to the big-city newspapers, especially in New York and Los Angeles, as the studios re-released their product amid hard-sell marketing fusillades.

This strategy helped magnify the post-nomination bumps the movies experienced. Both “Crouching Tiger” and “Chocolat” added hundreds of screens last week that gave them a quick spurt at the box office. “Traffic” didn’t add any screens but still sustained a strong weekend.

OTHER THAN PLACING ads and toting their stars around the talkshow circuit, however, there’s surprisingly little companies can do to hustle their product. Indeed, the Harveys and Terry Presses of the world are themselves frustrated by the rigidity of the Academy’s rules.

Yet rumors of behind-the-scenes intrigues are rampant. Whenever Daily Variety publishes a story of any sort that involves a contending film, the phone calls and e-mails come pouring in.

“That story obviously stemmed from disinformation supplied by our rivals,” one distributor announced angrily. They seem downright crestfallen when informed that no such disinformation effort was involved.

Meanwhile, the grunt work of Oscar campaigning continues apace. The videos and DVDs of nominated films go out to Academy members, augmented by an occasional promo — a DVD containing “an exclusive behind-the-scenes look” at “Erin Brockovich” was dispatched to some Daily Variety readers last week. CDs showcasing nominated songs and scores also will be circulated.

And then people will fill in their ballots and the rather mundane Oscar race will be over. No plots, no intrigues, no checking of chads — just old-fashioned voting. Unless the Academy moves its mailing address to Florida, or the ballots get lost in the mail, everything should go off according to plan.

So the ever-avid members of the consumer press would do well to relax a bit. As election processes go, this one simply is not especially sensational.

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