Offbeat projects can score for writing

Academy voters have long professed a deep love and respect for the original, the quirky and the edgy — movies such as “Fargo,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Lost in Translation,” “Sling Blade” and “The Crying Game.” Problem is, Oscar is also wild about the epic, the big historical drama and the conventional — think “Titanic,” “Gladiator” and “Gandhi.” And while all the former films were winners, those were in the screenplay categories, while Oscar saved the big prize of best picture for the latter.

The 2007 Oscar ceremony was no exception: The universally loved “Little Miss Sunshine” may have won original screenplay gold, but it was “The Departed” and Martin Scorsese who won the big awards.

So do voters hold back — even subconsciously — from voting for the smaller, quirkier film when it comes to best picture? Producer Mike Marcus, former president and COO of MGM, doesn’t buy it.

“First of all, start with the way the Academy votes,” he says. “The nominations come from the various branches, and the writers have 10 — five for best original screenplay, five for best adaptation — so you have writers voting for writers.

“Sometimes they’re susceptible like everyone else to the big event movie, but they’re also interested in some of the smaller movies, and I think that’s what starts it. Then the Academy at large gets to vote, and when you have a finite group of five movies in each category to choose from, then you go with your own taste. And as an Academy member, sometimes I like what’s popular and sometimes I don’t, so it depends on each individual movie.”

“The overall Academy taste is pretty middlebrow,” says Bob Strauss, film critic for the L.A. Daily News. “They generally lean towards stuff that has a certain level of quality and apparent seriousness to it, but that is fairly mainstream and safe when it comes to the best picture awards. It’s either a technical marvel, like the last ‘Lord of the Rings’ movie, or it’s got a lot of stars doing stuff that’s fairly easy to understand and relate to.”

Writers tend to be the most iconoclastic, subversive, rebellious group in Hollywood in general, “and that antiestablishment attitude almost inevitably leads you taste-wise into better, more daring material,” he adds. “And writers are more interested in ideas and concepts, while other voters have more technical issues to worry about, or bigger ego and image issues –we’re talking the actors’ branch here.”

So do any of the smaller, more challenging films, such as “No Country for Old Men,” “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” “Juno” and “Into the Wild” stand a chance for a best picture nomination?

“Hard to say,” says Strauss.

” ‘No Country’ is a very difficult movie in a lot of ways, but there’s a lot of support, and the Academy has at least nominated some difficult stuff before.”

Strauss sees “I’m Not There” and “Lars and the Real Girl” as “far more challenging” to the voters. ” ‘Lars’ is a tonal masterpiece, but the subject matter will unfortunately turn a lot of people off,” he notes, “whereas ‘Juno,’ which is very well-written and played, is far more accessible and enjoyable.”

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