New strategy may guide Oscar voters

Why is it that democracy sounds great in theory but the process itself is such a bummer?

Most Republicans I talk to complain that there’s no one they truly want to vote for; and many Democrats feel similarly. It’s a motivational malaise that’s also touched awards voters in Hollywood.

Ballots have been sent to members of the Academy and the various guilds, but there are no frontrunners stirring up passionate support — no “Titanic” or “The King’s Speech.” I’ve been a voting member of the Academy for many years, but I’m not proselytizing for any film this year (Academy members aren’t supposed to do that anyway).

Several fellow voters confide their “best picture” choices will be prompted by strategy rather than aesthetics, to take advantage of the Academy’s arcane preferential voting system. “I’m listing ‘Bridesmaids’ as No. 1 because I want it to make the best picture list even though I don’t think it’s the best picture,’ one Oscar voter tells me.

A film eliciting as few as 250 first-place votes (in a constituency of almost 6,000) might capture a nomination this year, thus incentivizing a small but committed minority.

Some studio executives apply the same tactic to help their tentpole pictures, knowing that the franchises are usually snubbed during awards season — an interesting anomaly. The studio parking lots are kept full by “Transformers,” the “Twilight” movies and “Harry Potter,” not by a film like “The Artist,” which may have been a job-creator for one neighborhood in Paris.

It’s the bankers, of course, who appreciate the tentpoles, though there were moments in 2011 when they, too, had their doubts. The moneymen seem to assume that any movie costing more than $150 million will be an automatic winner, but then “Cowboys & Aliens” and “The Green Lantern”came along to prove them wrong.

There were some dire quotes in the media lately stemming from Wall Street types who have suddenly discovered that the movie business may not be so great after all. Who claimed it was?

One key element of a solid industry is when there is predictability in product success, but one message of 2011 was that hits are impossible to forecast. History’s biggest successes, going back to “Star Wars” or “The Godfather” or “Jaws,” were almost accidents, not carefully planned blockbusters. Hollywood veterans know that frequently the best way to predict a hit is when all the studios have passed on a project.

It wasn’t that hard to pull together the funding for “Cowboys & Aliens,” but “The Help” was a tough slog. And a big hit. “New Year’s Eve” boasted major star wattage, as did “Larry Crowne,” but then along came “The Smurfs” and “Paranormal Activity.”

All told, box office results were off by 4% in 2011, and theater attendance has fallen by 20% from 1995. That may be why companies like Procter & Gamble long ago decided to stick to toothpaste rather than show business. All consumers expect from Crest gel is that it stays blue and makes your teeth white. Disney’s expectations were higher for “Mars Needs Moms” but the results probably had Uncle Walt turning over in his grave.

The most important fuel for the movie business is passion, not profitability. That’s also a key reason why thousands of us will be filling out our ballots this week, rallying behind our favorite pictures. Or our semi-favorite pictures. Or at least those films which, whatever their shortcomings, reflected the passions of their stars and filmmakers — and even their bankers.

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