Edgy faves hope for place at Oscar’s table

Younger Acad voters reflect choices come awards time

It’s a well-known fact that Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences voters have a soft spot for serious films that tackle major issues, and for well-mounted adaptations of literary works, especially if they feature classically trained British thespians.

Nevertheless, observers of the Oscar game will always tell you that for every “A Room With a View” and “Schindler’s List,” there are mass-appeal films like “Towering Inferno,” “Fatal Attraction,” “Working Girl,” “Ghost” and “The Fugitive” that end up garnering picture nominations.

This is important to remember because it means almost anyone can join the party. And yet many films that, critically speaking, rated significantly higher than those two gems have never gotten the coveted invitation to Hollywood’s big night. Year after year, as blockbuster costume epics like “Titanic,” “Braveheart,” “Gandhi” and “Gladiator” sweep the top shelf of statuettes, filmmakers ponder whether they have to set their pictures in history in order to be noticed on Oscar’s radar.

In such a context, many have to scramble to get a vote when their films deviate from regular Oscar bait. But what’s the standard? What does the Acad go for?

“It’s a mystery,” says Scott Hicks, director of “Shine,” “Snow Falling on Cedars” and “Hearts in Atlantis.” Although the first two received Oscar attention — including an actor trophy for Geoffrey Rush in “Shine” — the third has so far generated little award season buzz, despite having Anthony Hopkins as its lead. By the same token, other films that were not thought to have had much of a chance — take “Mulholland Drive,” for instance, which won honors from both the New York and Los Angeles film critics’ associations — are gathering surprising steam.

Distribution problem

When a good film fails to get noticed by the all-important Academy, it simply reflects the fact that it has not been seen, Hicks says. But, he adds, sending out videotapes and DVDs to thousands of voters has its own pitfalls.

“It gives the movies an opportunity to be viewed, but it also allows people to turn it off after five minutes if they haven’t been caught up by it,” says Hicks, a 25-year member of the Australian Film Institute. “In the end, I think the video-viewing structure is damaging to the credibility of the process. Ideally, voters should be obliged to see the film the way it was made, as a measure of the responsibility of their voting rights.”

“I may be naive but by and large I think the system is fair,” says actor William H. Macy (“Fargo,” “Focus”). “What draws voters’ attention is star power, interest in the subject, and what are perceived as being great reviews. I was, in all candor, predisposed not to like ‘Titanic’ because it was so big and so successful. But when I got honest about it, I thought, ‘How do you judge art? Did they accomplish what they set out to accomplish? Was it worth doing?’ On the level, it was an astounding success.”

Box office clout plays a big role in a movie’s Oscar chances, Macy says. “If several million people agree, then it’ll probably be a contender for the Oscar. But it is possible to tell a story that no one wants to hear. You can’t blame people for not wanting to hear –they’re the bosses. We’re selling, they’re buying.”

Fortunately, says veteran “Good Morning America” film critic Joel Siegel, Academy voters are getting younger and more numerous, which is beginning to be reflected in edgier choices at awards time.

More honest process

In addition, big studios don’t manipulate the Oscar process like they used to, when, for example, powerhouses like Louis B. Mayer could influence the selection of “Ivanhoe” as a best picture nominee in order to give it a boost at the box office. As a result, “Singin’ in the Rain” was left out, earning it Siegel’s own award for the greatest movie never nominated for a picture Oscar.

“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” director Chris Columbus, who has been an Academy member for 10 years, says that, more to the point, voters should do their utmost to see every picture that might be in contention.

“If they’re really conscientious, they would do that, but you’re talking about Hollywood, so who knows? I don’t vote unless I see everything I’m sent — but then again, you’re not always sent everything.”

Columbus, who receives his screeners in London, where he has lived for two years, says that Academy voters do not consult with each other but that, in any event, the voting process invariably seems to come down to the same group of films.

That choice is driven by heavy marketing, an unavoidable factor in every year’s awards season.

“It’s about how much firepower a distributor wants to invest in a particular movie in an Oscar campaign,” says San Francisco Examiner film critic Joe Leydon, who also writes for Variety. “If a movie opens early in the year and doesn’t do gangbuster business at the box office, people may have forgotten about it and the effort is better spent on a more recent picture.”

Such a fate, Leydon believes, befell Jack Nicholson’s performance in “The Pledge,” which he rates as one of the best in the actor’s long career. “When we got the first batch of screeners from Warner Bros., ‘The Pledge’ wasn’t even in it,” Leydon says. “They were dead set on ‘Training Day’ and ‘Hearts in Atlantis.’ The studios are not going to get behind all their pictures equally.”

John Pavlik, director of communications for the Academy, stresses that all 6,000 or so voters are professionals in their fields, and know a deserving picture when they see one, regardless of what the studios are pushing.

“They all got into the Academy because of their expertise and their achievements in filmmaking,” Pavlik says. “They know what they’re looking for. It doesn’t mean they all agree with each other — they obviously don’t — but the bar they set for themselves is very high.”

While there is no specific standard for what constitutes an Oscar-worthy picture, there are countless factors that influence choices.

“Nominations are a reflection of the times and of the relative competition in a given year,” says Fine Line Features president Mark Ordesky. “‘American Beauty’ was not up against ‘Citizen Kane.’ ”

Against such monolithic features, small-scale films have little chance. “You need nurturing from critics, box office, and some serious spending on an awards campaign,” says John Cameron Mitchell, director of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”

“If you have all three you’re in. … Stars help, too. If you’re disabled, or a minority of some sort, or a homosexual Puerto Rican poet, you’d have everything you could need if you didn’t have the money for a campaign.”