Wednesday, February 23, 2005

OSCAR Week/Awards Report #7/Who PICKS This Stuff?!

Picking Oscar winners - a juror's tale
By Rebecca Thomas BBC News entertainment reporter

For Indian film director Ashutosh Gowariker, this year's Oscars will be a landmark occasion, marking his first year as a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Gowariker was asked to join this elite film-making fraternity after his movie Lagaan was nominated for the best foreign film Oscar in 2001.

In the event, Lagaan - which went on to achieve global success - lost out to No Man's Land from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

But the value of the nomination and Gowariker's Academy position have not been lost on the director or his countrymen.

Despite India's own thriving film industry, Gowariker says people there understand the global recognition brought by inclusion in the Oscars ceremony.

"Right now, there is a lot of hype in India because everyone has understood that the Academy Awards are the equivalent of the Olympics and many people watch them on TV.

"When I was nominated it was an unbelievable moment. I wanted to ask others around me if I had heard right or whether I was just being optimistic.

"It opened up doors in countries where Indian films did not have a presence in the past, such as Finland, and when I was asked on the jury it was exhilarating."

According to the Academy's voting rules, Gowariker nominates five films within his own professional category, namely directing. But all Academy members also put forward five films for best picture.

To this end, the Academy has to make sure its voters have seen all the eligible films - for this year's Oscars that equated to more than 200 - and duly sends them out on DVD.

Academy Perks
Gowariker, like all his peers, has to fit all this movie watching around his day job of actually getting films onto the screen.

"It keeps me very busy but it's fun too and I've never enjoyed popcorn more," he jokes.
Academy rules, of which there are many, also state that voters cannot discuss their choices, but Gowariker can say what he is looking for in a good film.

"It's very difficult because no five films can be compared to each other but, for me, the most important aspect is how great a moral message a film has. Films must entertain but also leave something behind with the audience,"
he explains.

Lagaan - a period drama about colonial rule, cricket and kinship - certainly seemed to follow this ethos, drawing many thousands to cinemas across India for many weeks.

Gowariker is committed to staying in India, working in Mumbai (Bombay), making traditional Bollywood musical films, such as his latest release Swades.

But he also makes the most of his visits to Hollywood, where his Academy membership gives him access to its library, archives and screenings.

He also gets to meet other film-makers, and recently had a satisfying meeting with British director Roland Joffe.

"Roland Joffe's views have been very interesting. He has a lot of experience of Indian films, has visited the country quite often and is most hopeful about the kind of cinema emerging from India," says Gowariker.

"He loved Lagaan and its combination of different genres: music, sport, drama, romance - this fascinated him."

Country divides
As a result of his visits, Gowariker has concluded that film-making is essentially the same worldwide.

"The grammar of making a movie and, as far as I can tell, the process is the same be it in America or India.The difference lies in the marketing," he says.

"Hollywood has a truly global market as mainstream movies find themselves in the remotest corners of the world, whereas our films remain amongst non-resident Indians overseas."
Hollywood movies are indeed very popular with Indian audiences whereas few Indian movies get a US release, and then it is only limited.

But Gowariker is neither bitter nor surprised by this apparent lack of appreciation, admitting he would only see a foreign film in India if it was in a festival or it had been much-hyped.

Still, his ultimate dream project could, he hopes, break down the barriers.

"I would love to go into Hollywood with my baggage and make a James Bond movie. They already have a strong theme song and then when they see Bond in places like Morocco in a belly dancing club - that for me is an opportunity for song." EDITOR'S NOTE: UMM...OK. INTERESTING LIFE'S DREAM. BUT HEY, GO FOR IT DUDE!

Insider's Guide: Who Decides Who Wins the Oscars?
Each spring the Academy Awards celebrate achievement in film, and put on a pretty grand show in the process. But is the Best Picture always the best picture?

Below, film critic David Edelstein gives an inside perspective on the Oscar system.

So, who decides who wins the Oscars?
Edelstein: The wrong people, if you ask me. But then, I'm a critic and often question the taste of Academy voters. The Oscars can't be said to celebrate true artistic achievement, since history teems with examples of masterpieces passed over in favor of middlebrow beanbags.

Nor can it be said to celebrate commercial achievement, since it often turns its nose up at blockbusters, even good ones. (Consider 1982, when Hollywood generated two of the finest big-studio commercial entertainments of the last 25 years--E.T. and Tootsie--and the Oscar went to the square film, Gandhi.)

What the Academy actually celebrates is a peculiar amalgam of qualities: artistic, commercial, gaudily inflated, and politically earnest. The "Best Picture" is meant to serve as Hollywood's poster child.

What was the question again?
Oh, yes: The people who vote are members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The Academy's Web site lists members' qualifications as follows:

"Membership in the Academy is by invitation of the Board of Governors and is limited to those who have achieved distinction in the arts and sciences of motion pictures. Some of the criteria for admittance are: film credits of a caliber which reflect the high standards of the Academy, receipt of an Academy Award nomination, achievement of unique distinction, earning of special merit, or making of an outstanding contribution to film. EDITOR'S NOTE: WELL I AM THE QUEEN OF THE DWEEBS. SEEMS LIKE I SHOULD BE GETTING THAT INVITE ANY DAY NOW, HMM??!

"Members represent 13 branches--Actors, Art Directors, Cinematographers, Directors, Executives, Film Editors, Music, Producers, Public Relations, Short Films and Feature Animation, Sound, Visual Effects and Writers. A candidate for membership in the Academy must be sponsored by at least two members of the branch for which the person may qualify. Each proposed member must first receive the favorable endorsement of the appropriate branch executive committee before his or her name is submitted to the Board of Governors for its approval." EDITOR'S NOTE: NEVER MIND. THEY ARE SO ANTI-DWEEB IN HOLLYWOOD, I'LL NEVER GET A PUBLIC ENDORSEMENT. (ALL THE CLOSET DWEEBS COULDN'T RISK THE NEGATIVE ASSOCIATION).

In the nomination process, actors nominate actors, directors nominate directors, writers nominate writers, and so on. But everyone gets to vote for the final awards.

In the parlance of the industry, the Academy demographic "skews old": Some of those who vote haven't had anything do with the business for forty years. That might be why you're apt to see old-fashioned movies like Gandhi or Out of Africa or The Last Emperor win over more radical or challenging fare.

First-Time Oscar Voters Rush to Judgment
LOS ANGELES - Keith David popped in a DVD of "Vera Drake" and settled into the comfort of his pillow-strewn brown sofa. The veteran actor had decisions to make — lots of them — that would affect careers and coffers alike.

David is a new member of one of the world's most exclusive voting blocs, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He's deciding for the very first time who gets to go home with an Oscar on Sunday.

"My vote counts," he said. "It's like I'm the Electoral College." David, animator Brad Bird, actress Scarlett Johansson and costume designer David C. Robinson were among 127 people invited to join the 5,808-member academy last year.

"It's really nice to be able to feel like you have some part of who is recognized," said Johansson, 20, one of the youngest voters. "Maybe I should've done a bet with somebody to see if my picks win."

Watching 35 movies — plus 10 short subjects and 10 documentaries — and listening to five CDs of nominated songs in barely three weeks would be nirvana to most film fans.

But it's been a race to the deadline — a very firm 5 p.m. on Tuesday deadline — for many academy members, most of whom have jobs and families to attend to each day. David, for instance, had to cram two or three movies in after midnight one recent evening.

Bird's also felt the squeeze.

"I feel a real rush, almost a panic, to see them all," he says, "so I'm voting from a place of knowledge and not just because I know someone on a film or I like someone on a film." EDITOR'S NOTE: NICE TO SEE HE FEELS THAT WAY, BUT THAT SHOULD REALLY KINDA GO WITHOUT SAYING, SHOUDLN'T IT?!

Sometimes, the movies meld into a confusing blur.

Bird, nominated this year for original screenplay and animated feature for "The Incredibles," recently attended the academy's nominees luncheon and met best-actress contender Annette Bening. He told her he loved her in "Finding Julia."

Oops! Bird had confused "Being Julia" with best-picture nominee "Finding Neverland."

"I immediately corrected myself," he said. "I've seen so many in so little time."

Bird took his screeners — the free tapes and DVDs of the nominees — with him everywhere and watched at least one a day. During idle moments, he even resorted to seeing some on his computer.

Animated feature and original screenplay were Bird's easiest votes — for himself.
"I feel like I did a good job," he said modestly.

Robinson, the New York-based costume designer, watched three movies a day. If he wasn't voting, he acknowledged he probably would have skipped "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" and "Hotel Rwanda."

"It's not brain surgery," he said. "It's the performances and movies and visual things that grab you and make you feel something. I'm going to pick the things that do that," he said in a phone interview last week. EDITOR'S NOTE: NO, IT'S NOT DEEP. BUT IT IS HIGHLY SUBJECTIVE. HECK, THAT HAS A LOT TO DO WITH WHY THEY MAKE SO MANY DIFFERENT....AND DIFFERENT KINDS OF.....MOVIES, RIGHT?!

So, did any of our first-timers vote for pals or someone who helped them get a job?

"If I felt two works were equally good and I liked one person more than another, it would push it over," Bird admitted. "But in the end, you're voting on the work."

Some Academy members, including Johansson, simply don't have the time to review all 24 categories, so they abstain from voting in contests they haven't seen.

"You want to be able to really give a fair judgment," said the busy actress.

Others skip the more technical categories, professing ignorance about the nuances of crafts such as sound mixing, sound editing, visual effects and cinematography.

But not David, a Tony- and Emmy-nominated actor whose credits include "There's Something About Mary," "Head of State" and "Barbershop."

"It's my opinion," he said. "Even if I don't know enough about it, when I look at the movie, I look at that aspect. I know how a good editor can save ... a bad director."

After watching "Vera Drake" on his 36-inch television, David scribbled down notes detailing what he liked about the illegal abortion drama starring best-actress nominee Imelda Staunton.
"Torn doesn't begin to describe it," he said. "A lot of them get the same mark, so I go back and narrow it down. The few movies that I'm very hot on, I go back and watch them again. It's hard to compare actors unless you saw them all play the same role."

Bird will be in the Kodak Theatre audience on Oscar night and Johansson will be a presenter. David and Robinson, meanwhile, will have to watch the fruits of their labors on TV because there's not enough room at the Kodak for every academy member.

But that hasn't dimmed David's regard for Hollywood's highest honor.

"I'm very glad they changed the language to `The Oscar goes to,' instead of `The winner is,'" David said. "There are no losers here."


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