An Oscar myth debunked

Guest Column

The first thing that you need to know about Meyer Gottlieb’s critique of the Academy’s foreign-language category (“Rocking the foreign language vote,” Daily Variety, Nov. 24) is that Meyer’s heart is absolutely in the right place.

Although he shares the ingrained assumptions of all distributors about the purpose of Oscars, he genuinely loves foreign-language pictures and wishes we could find ways of inducing more members to vote in that category. And he offered a few well-meant, if not always absolutely workable, rule changes toward that end.

The thing in his essay that I found most interesting was the fact that he put down in black-and-white an open reference to a phenomenon that is usually only whispered about in our community: the “hide the movie game.”

Actually only distributors, and maybe only specialty distributors, worry about people hiding their movies, but those folks worry about it a lot. Hardly a year goes by that one of them doesn’t call us up to suggest, darkly, that some other distributor is hiding a picture in the Foreign Language or Feature Documentary category. Often they manage to jack up a wide-eyed rookie reporter to share their alarm.

The murderous effectiveness of the “hide the movie” gambit is one of the town’s Great Articles of Oscar Faith, right up there with the notion that hundreds of Awards ballots arrive at PriceWaterhouse each year with Calabasas postmarks, or that voters can stuff the Nominations ballot box by writing the same picture in on all five lines of their ballots.

The theory is supposed to work like this: a picture snags a nomination in one of the special-film categories after having had only its minimal qualifying run. Since voters in those categories have to see all the nominees in order to qualify for a ballot, the distributor can control the size of the electorate in the category by not putting the picture into distribution during the voting period, and by not making it easily available for viewing by the membership. Then he holds a small number of invitation-only screenings for close AMPAS-member friends. They all get ballots and flood the category with friendly votes.

It’s a nice, devious bit of thinking, but it doesn’t work. Here’s why. The strategy depends on two crucial assumptions:

1. That your friends are ethically and aesthetically corrupt enough to vote for your picture even if they think one of the other nominated films is better, and

2. That they will actually bother to see the other four films and then submit a ballot in the category.

I’d like to think that the first of those hopes is a false one, but the only one of them that I can speak about with authority is the second.

If you’re someone who’s tried to work this scam in the past, or is thinking about trying it in the future, let me say it again: it doesn’t work. Its fatal flaw is that the troops don’t show up for the battle. You’re like Kerry hoping to win with the rock ‘n’ roll vote – – they’ll come to the show, sure, but they never get around to dropping in a ballot.

If they did, we’d know about it. Think it through: to get a ballot in any of the special categories a member has to attest that he or she has seen all of the nominated films. If she’s seen most of them at one of the Academy screenings (in L.A., New York, London or the Bay Area), there’s a record of her attendance.

For those she’s seen elsewhere – at a special screening somewhere, or at a theater – she has to let us know when and where she’s seen them. Your picture isn’t playing theatrically, which means that she’ll need to indicate that she caught it at a special screening. And remember, for the “hide the movie” ploy to work the special screenings need to be clandestine enough that only your friends can find them.

I promise you that if, in any year, we were to receive cards from 200 members indicating that they had seen a particular picture on a particular night in a derelict barge anchored off of Pier 56, we would notice this, and suspect that skulduggery was afoot. That would be true if only twenty members did it, or five, and it would still be true if the friends-only screenings were held at a more orthodox venue.

It doesn’t happen though. The huge majority of voters in these categories have seen the films at the official voting screenings or in theaters. The few who cite special screenings almost always specify screenings that were well advertised to members, and which any member could attend.

I’m not saying that no one has ever tried the “hide the movie” dodge; I’m saying that it hasn’t ever worked. Any avalanches of votes that it has precipitated have been the modest, three-or-four-vote sort of avalanches.

So Meyer, I hope that helps at least a little. Mark Johnson and his executive committee for the Foreign Language category will keep tinkering with the procedures in the hope of getting more members involved. (Who knows – maybe these shiny new encrypted DVD players will give them some ideas.) But whatever develops, at least there’s no need to institute a bad rule in order to ward off a nonexistent phenomenon.

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