Thursday, February 16, 2006

Let the (OSCAR) games begin!


Cates chairs Oscar seating plan
By Gregg Kilday and Borys Kit
As the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences celebrated the 25th anniversary of its annual nominees luncheon Monday, producer Gil Cates unveiled a new plan for streamlining the March 5 Oscar show while ensuring nominees all have a bit of face time on TV.

Last year, Cates began to experiment with Oscar traditions by presenting some of the nominees in a lineup onstage while awarding Oscars in other categories to nominees seated inside the Kodak Theatre. The experiment, designed to eliminate long walks from the back of the auditorium to the stage, was met with a mixed reception, with some critics contending that it reduced nominees in some of the crafts categories to second-class status. EDITOR'S NOTE: MIXED RECEPTION? SO THERE WAS SOMEONE WHO THOUGHT IT WAS A GOOD IDEA?

For this year's 78th Annual Academy Awards, which also marks Cates' 13th turn as producer, he has abandoned that planEDITOR'S NOTE: AWW....(SNICKER) but is introducing a new one, which he said was "not quite as dramatic as last year."

Nominees in some categories will be led to seats in the third and fourth rows during commercial breaks so they can be seen on camera as their names are read. Nominees in other categories will be rotated into the featured seats during commercial breaks. Those in the affected categories will be notified by letter before the show. EDITOR'S NOTE: IF THEY SET IT TO MUSIC, YOU'VE GOT A HOEDOWN!

Making the annual plea that winners avoid reciting long lists of names as part of their thank-yous, Cates said it is the Oscar winners who are responsible for ensuring an exciting and memorable show.

"With this year's crop of grown-up movies, finding and keeping a large audience isn't going to be easy," he said. EDITOR'S NOTE: GOSH...I THINK HE MEANS WE'RE DUMB. AYUK AYUK AYUK. NAWWW.... THAT AIN'T WHAT HE MEANS, IS IT? (LET'S PROVE HIM WRONG. LET'S WATCH THE WHOLE THING AND NOT EVEN GET UP DURING THE COMMERCIALS!)

Academy president Sid Ganis welcomed 116 of this year's nominees to the luncheon Monday at the Beverly Hilton, noting that if it had not been for the blizzard that hit New York this weekend, the number would have been closer to 120. (The storm prevented such nominees as director Ang Lee and actor Paul Giamatti from attending.)

Ganis recalled that 25 years ago, when the tradition first started, only 45 of 136 nominees attended. Two of that first luncheon's nominees -- Steven Spielberg and editor Michael Kahn, both nominated in 1982 for "Raiders of the Lost Ark" -- attended as nominees this year for "Munich."

Ganis presented former Academy president Richard Kahn, who initiated the first lunch, a plaque recognizing him as "the progenitor" of the low-key luncheon at which nominees mingle and gather for the annual Oscar class photo.

On the way to lunch, a number of nominees also offered a few words to the press.

"I'm riding high," said Felicity Huffman, best actress nominee for "Transamerica."

"I'm not going as a seat filler, I'm not going as a caterer, I'm going as myself."George Clooney, nominated for directing and co-writing "Good Night, and Good Luck" and best supporting actor for his role in "Syriana," joked that he was bringing Vice President Dick Cheney as his guest to the Oscars. "He called me to go hunting and I asked, Why don't you come as my date?"EDITOR'S NOTE: LOVE YA, GEORGE! (HOPE HE WINS SOMETHING, SO THERE WILL BE SOME ELEMENT OF 'DANGER' TO THE THANK YOU SPEECHES!)

William Hurt mused on topics ranging from acting to the competitive nature of the American ethic. He said he relished digging deep into his part of the mobster brother in "A History of Violence." He said the day of his first scene, he went to director David Cronenberg and asked, "Do you have the afterburners on? Because I really want to turn it on."

"Pride & Prejudice" best actress nominee Keira Knightley, who has been shooting the "Pirates of the Caribbean" sequel in the Bahamas, said castmates Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom have been ribbing her since the nomination. "They've been taking the piss out of me. Every time I do a take, they say, 'Oh, is that an Oscar-nominated take?' " she said.

"Hustle & Flow" best actor nominee Terrence Howard said he has received advice from former best actor nominee Will Smith on how to handle the attention. "He said, 'For the next month, each person nominated is a winner. So enjoy it,' " Howard said. EDITOR'S NOTE: I LOVE WILL SMITH. (JUST SO'S YA KNOW).


Oscar nods for small films could kill ad buzz for show
By David Lieberman, USA TODAY

NEW YORK — Critics must be thrilled that the splashiest Oscar nominations went to high-minded yet low-budget and mostly R-rated films.

But those who follow the money gave mixed reviews to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' best-picture finalists: Brokeback Mountain; Capote; Crash; Good Night, and Good Luck; and Munich.

The films, targeted to relatively narrow audiences, might not attract lots of fans to the March 5 Oscar show on ABC with first-time host Jon Stewart.

"I don't know how they get an attraction out of this. Look at the top films and tell me who's starring in them. If I were an advertiser on the Oscars, I'd look for something else," says independent analyst Dennis McAlpine. "This is not going to give Hollywood a chance to promote the idea of going to the movies for entertainment."EDITOR'S NOTE: SPOKEN LIKE A TRUE AD GUY. HEY...I LIKE MOVIES WITH THINGS BLOWING UP MORE THAN JUST ABOUT ANYBODY. BUT TO SAY THAT THESE CLASSY FILMS AREN'T ENTERTAINMENT IS PUTTING THE BAR PRETTY DARN LOW, ISN'T IT?

That's key, because the show and the industry need to build buzz. The Oscars' 42.1 million audience last year was off 3.2% from 2004 and 9% since 2000.

Hollywood is coming off a year when box office sales fell 6.2% to $8.8 billion and home video fell about 1% to about $24 billion — the first drop ever.

Some on Wall Street say that overlooking big films with big stars — such as Tom Cruise's War of the Worlds, Johnny Depp's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's Mr. & Mrs. Smith— also risks leaving audiences yawning at the awards. The broadcast could suffer if such celebrities merely walk the red carpet or don't show up at all. EDITOR'S NOTE: SO THEY SHOULD NOMINATE....TO PUT IT AS NICELY AS POSSIBLE....LESSER LIGHTS SO AS TO APPEASE THE AD GODS (AND THE TEEMING, AND CLEARLY DIM, MASSES)?

Yet, Coca-Cola, back on the Academy Awards after seven years' hiatus, is unfazed. "We view the Oscars as destination programming and a great place to feature advertising for our brands," says spokeswoman Susan McDermott.EDITOR'S NOTE: COKE PRODUCTS WILL BE SERVED AT MY PARTY!

Others say the famously box-office-minded Academy for once might be ahead of the curve by spotlighting films about complex issues and people.

"One of the biggest complaints about 2005 was that the movies weren't that good," says Exhibitor Relations President Paul Dergarabedian. "But these movies highlight the fact that Hollywood does have something to offer."

Optimists believe the choices will build suspense for the telecast. "People will go out and see the movies, and there's something appealing about the competition having no clear favorite," says Andy Donchin, director of national broadcast for media buyer Carat.

Ticket buyers might have to get used to arty and intellectual movies aimed at upscale audiences, says Jefferies & Co. analyst Robert Routh. "There's a paradigm shift you're seeing in Hollywood. They're positioning themselves to focus on high-margin, lower-risk projects. They're not paying a 10% or 20% profit participation for Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise. And the Academy is endorsing that."EDITOR'S NOTE: THEY ARE ALWAYS LOOKING FOR TRENDING IN EXTREMELY SHORT-TERM PHENOMENA. BUT THE COOL THING? IT IS PERFECTLY ACCEPTABLE...NAY, REQUIRED...THAT WE IGNORE ANYTHING OPINED BY SOMEONE WHO USES THE WORD 'PARADIGM' IN A SENTENCE.

Investors looking to bet on the Oscars have only one choice, he says. Independent studio Lionsgate's Crash got nods for best picture, director, screenplay, supporting actor, editing and song. Its shares fell 2.2% to $8.90, because, "The first thing people think is that they'll have to spend more (on marketing) and may not win," Routh says.

Visual Effects (The analysis)
And the winner was ...'Spider-Man 2'
Though none of its characters were fully CG like this year's Kong, pic made extensive use of digital doubles, including an extended close-up of Alfred Molina created entirely in the computer.

This year's visual effects nominations prove the Academy can be a coldhearted place.

It was the last chance to honor "Star Wars," the franchise that all but invented the modern visual effects blockbuster and helped create the modern vfx industry. But the effects branch put sentiment aside and went with "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," "King Kong" and "War of the Worlds." EDITOR'S NOTE: COLD AND UNGRATEFUL, AND DOWNRIGHT WRONGO.

This year, it seems, the branch favored films in which vfx make an emotional contribution to the story, particularly with CG characters such as Kong and the lion Aslan. Without such a character, "War of the Worlds" may be at a disadvantage, even though it emerged from the summer blockbuster season with the most buzz for its vfx work.

The clip reel shown to the effects branch at the "bake-off" was stunning, and its alien tripods are terrifying. The choice to stick close to the hero's point of view makes them even more disturbing.

"Narnia" boasts some remarkably lifelike animal animation, from the lion Aslan to the talking beavers and wolves to its fantasy beasts. The ability of those animals to hold the screen opposite live actors weighs in its favor. EDITOR'S NOTE: OK....THE BEAVERS ROCKED! I VOTE FOR THE BEAVERS!

"King Kong," though, boasts the CG performance of the year. Its eponymous star combines facial performance capture (by thesp Andy Serkis) and detailed hand animation. Kong holds his own as an actual character opposite Naomi Watts EDITOR'S NOTE: LIKE THAT'S A STRETCH? (GIGGLE..SORRY) and can bring a tear to all but the flintiest hearts. That's likely to impress the general membership.

When it comes down to the final tally, the finer points of vfx technology don't matter much. With many Academy members watching the movies on DVD, and with relatively few of them possessing an educated eye for vfx, it's more important whether the general membership likes the movie.

There's no obvious favorite among these three. "Narnia" is the biggest hit, but there's grumbling that its vfx were uneven. "Kong" is too long and didn't quite catch fire. The "War of the Worlds" story fizzles, and Tom Cruise has become a distraction.

The race will come down to whether the Acad cries for Kong. Every tear shed tips the scales his way. If their eyes are dry, "Narnia" could win on sheer likability.

The Chronicles of Narnia
Dean Wright, Bill Westenhofer, Jim Berney and Scott Farrar
Oscar pedigree: Farrar, "Cocoon" win (1985)
Current kudos: Broadcast Crix (family film win), BAFTA (noms), VES (noms)
Why it'll win: "Narnia" is the biggest hit and most likable nominee.
Why it won't: It contains very uneven vfx work, with many weak shots.

King Kong
Joe Letteri, Brian Van't Hul, Christian Rivers and Richard Taylor
Oscar pedigree: Taylor, 4 Oscars; Letteri, 2 Oscars
Current kudos: Visual Effects Society (noms), BAFTA (noms), Toronto Crix (special award for Andy Serkis)
Why it'll win: This remake has more and better dinosaurs than "Jurassic Park," a gorgeous New York and that heartbreaking ape.
Why it won't: This remake is too long and not quite the hit it was supposed to be.

War of the Worlds
Dennis Muren,EDITOR'S NOTE: AAAAHHH, A LITTLE ILM'ING, EVEN IF IT ISN'T STAR WARS Pablo Helman, Randal M. Dutra and Daniel Sudick
Oscar pedigree: Muren, 7 Oscars
Current kudos: VES (noms)
Why it'll win: Terrifying f/x are used in creative, unusual ways.
Why it won't: The vfx are better than the movie, which lacks passionate supporters.

Gentlemen, Start Your Campaigns Seven insights and observations about this year’s Oscar nominees.
By Devin Gordon

Updated: 1:35 p.m. ET Feb. 3, 2006

What a difference a few months can make. Just last autumn, one of the hot topics in Hollywood was whether anyone would go see a movie about two cowboys who fall in love. Would it ruin the careers of its handsome (and heterosexual) rising-star leading men, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal? Would Red State America reject the film as offensive? Would there be mass protests? Picket lines? Hate crimes?

Now, with the announcement of the Academy Award nominations, all of Hollywood is asking a very different question: can anything stop “Brokeback Mountain” from sweeping the Oscars and winning the best-picture statue in a walk?

There were a few minor jolts when the list of Oscar nominees was released, and we’ll get to a few of them soon. But none of them even approaches “Brokeback Mountain.” What’s the surprise? How unsurprising its eventual triumph has become.

Let’s take a look at the most remarkable things about this year’s list—or, at least, the seven most interesting things to me.
1. The movie with the best chance to beat 'Brokeback Mountain' didn’t even get nominated.

That would be “Walk the Line,” which got snubbed in the best picture, director and screenplay categories. Remember just a few weeks ago, at the Golden Globes, when “Walk the Line” won the award for best picture (in the “musical or comedy” category)? In that moment, I could see the script for an Oscar upset by “Walk the Line.” It went something like this: in an award season dominated by indie films, “Walk the Line” is a Hollywood movie made by Hollywood people, with A-list stars giving career-best performances. It’s a true story about fame, redemption and the power of love—and not just any love. It’s about boy-girl love. Plus, it’s a hit. “Walk the Line” crossed the $100-million box-office mark before the nominations were unveiled. Contrast that with “Brokeback Mountain”: a tiny movie about gay cowboys directed by a Taiwanese guy, coproduced by a former Columbia University professor and co-written by a septuagenarian who thanked his typewriter at the Golden Globes.

Like presidential elections, winning a best-picture Oscar is all about mobilizing a base of voters—and the “Walk the Line” base would’ve been the opposite of “Brokeback Mountain”'s. The “Walk the Line” base is primarily industry insiders; the “Brokeback” base is largely outsiders. But then the Academy had to go and ruin it by leaving “Walk the Line” off the list entirely. From the start, “Walk the Line” was pegged as a solid, unspectacular film propelled by two dynamite performances. And whaddya know—the two performers got nods, and that’s about it. Now get ready for a month of stories from people in my business about how “Crash” is gaining momentum with voters because it’s about Los Angeles, where most Academy voters live. But don’t get suckered in. “Brokeback” is gonna win. The media is just bored.

2. The box-office heavyweight among the five best-picture nominees is … 'Crash'?

First, a flashback. Here’s what I wrote at this time last year: “As I type this, the most profitable film among the five best picture nominees is ‘Ray,’ which has made a ‘whopping’ $73 million at the box office … [I]t’s hard to remember a year when the best picture field didn’t include a single bona fide box office hit.

In 2006, the situation is even more dire. On the day that the nominations were announced this year, the most profitable film among the five best-picture candidates was the race-relations drama “Crash,” which had made a truly whopping $53 million. To be fair, four of the films were made for pennies (“Munich” was not) and three of them—“Brokeback,” “Good Night” and “Crash”—are already enormously profitable. All five will get a box-office boost from the nominations. But the fact remains that, come March 5, the vast majority of Americans won’t have seen any of the nominated films. EDITOR'S NOTE: OF COURSE THE VAST MAJORITY OF AMERICANS....DON'T GET ME STARTED......

The big loser here is ABC. Ratings for the Oscars have been sliding for years. This year’s host—Jon Stewart—is as hot as comedians get, but he’s still a cable-TV guy whose most noteworthy contribution to the cinema canon is the stoner comedy “Half Baked.” So here’s a bold prediction: barring some unforeseen controversy, this year’s Oscar broadcast will be the lowest-rated of all time.

3. But the ratings in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China could be huge.

One of the most charming moments of the Golden Globes was a visibly nervous Ang Lee ending his best-director acceptance speech by saying “Happy New Year” in Mandarin to Asian viewers around the world. Maybe they’ll all tune in to the Oscars to watch the Taiwan-born filmmaker go down in history. If—or I should say, when—he wins the Oscar for best director this year, he will be (as many pundits have noted) the first Asian winner in the category. In fact, he’ll be the first non-white-guy, period. I don’t know about you, but that’s reason enough for me to tune in.EDITOR'S NOTE: WOW. REALLY? THE FIRST NON-WHITE-GUY? WOW. (I'M STILL ROOTING FOR CLOONEY).

4. Did you happen to notice who’s getting this year’s honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement?

I just did: it’s Robert Altman.

Oooh, this is gonna be great. Do you think he’ll boo during the retrospective montage of his own films? Will he accept the statue and then tell everyone in the audience that they’re all stupid and their movies stink? Will he be speaking live or will the Janet Jackson tape delay be in effect?

Remember, this is the guy who made “The Player,” arguably the most scathing satire of Hollywood ever made. Altman is a genius filmmaker and a beyond-deserving recipient. (Like almost every other legendary director, he has never won an Oscar.) But he’s a cantankerous S.O.B. who’s more than 80 years old and way, way, way past the point of caring what anyone thinks of him. In other words, this is almost guaranteed to be the highlight of the night. EDITOR'S NOTE: WOOHOO! SNARK AND SENILITY AND CANTANKEROUS CARPING!!!

5. So much for all those Zionist members of the Academy, huh?

Sometimes, the stereotype about all the Jews in Hollywood is played for laughs, and sometimes it comes out with a much uglier tinge. For a while, one of the lingering jokes about the Oscars was that you didn’t actually have to see any of the nominees in the documentary feature category in order to predict the winner—you just had to look at the titles. If there was a Holocaust doc in the bunch, that’s your winner. EDITOR'S NOTE: UMMMM....JUST CAUSE IT'S A STEREOTYPE, DOESN'T MEAN IT'S NOT TRUE. (IT'S HOW I ALMOST ALWAYS FILL IN MY BALLOT). All those Jews in the Academy, so the “joke” went, couldn’t resist. (Unfortunately, for a few years there, this joke had the misfortune of appearing to be true.) EDITOR'S NOTE: THIS IS WHAT I'M SAYING. OF COURSE, IT DOESN'T MEAN THESE WEREN'T THE BEST FILMS, EITHER?

This year, though, the Academy nominated a pair of films that have raised considerable ire among pro-Israel supporters, both in the film industry and in the public at large: Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” and the Palestinian foreign-language nominee “Paradise Now,” which dramatizes the thoughts, feelings and motivations of a pair of suicide bombers. “Munich” is by no means the apologia that some have labeled it, but the film does give voice to some conciliatory ideas that many Jews find discomforting, even offensive.

As for “Paradise Now,” putting a “human face” on terrorism is usually considered a cardinal sin by the terrorized. And yet in both cases, the Academy put politics aside and nominated both films on their merits.

6. DreamWorks and Disney square off for the animated feature Oscar.

Sort of.

Last year, I ripped the Academy for wasting one of this category’s precious three nominations on a pile of junk called “Shark Tale.” Order was restored when “The Incredibles” won, but the inclusion of “Shark Tale” reeked of box-office pandering. So this year, I fully expected an animated-feature showdown between DreamWorks’ god-awful “Madagascar” and Disney’s god-awfuller “Chicken Little.” And one of them would surely win, I assumed, since Pixar didn’t release a film in 2005.

Sometimes it’s nice to be wrong.

DreamWorks and Disney will indeed square off for the prize, but its their not-so-famous films that got the nods. DreamWorks’ delightful “Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit” provided me with my best theater memory of the year: I saw the film on a Saturday night in Cambridge, Mass., with my fiancée’s family—and about 100 deliriously stoned college kids from Harvard, MIT and Boston University. Good times.

And Disney’s nominated film, “Howl’s Moving Castle,” is actually an import from Japanese auteur Hayao Miyazaki, who won the best-animated-feature Oscar in 2002 for his masterpiece “Spirited Away.” Much as in the best-picture category, Academy voters refreshingly put quality over quantity. Bravo. EDITOR'S NOTE: AND LET'S NOT FORGET "CORPSE BRIDE" WHICH IS WONDERFUL!

6a. More on the animated feature category: the unbeatable, unstoppable director of 'Wallace and Gromit'

Has anyone in Oscar history had a run like claymation king Nick Park, the codirector of “Wallace and Gromit”?

Prior to this year, Park has been nominated for an Oscar four times, and he’s only lost once, in 1989, when he beat himself. His “Creature Comforts” defeated his “A Grand Day Out with Wallace and Gromit,” the first of four adorable films about an English inventor and his much-smarter dog. Only one of his films has failed to get nominated: his equally adorable feature-film debut “Chicken Run,” which came out in 2000 and didn’t get nominated only because it came out a year before the category began. Bet on Park to win again this year.

6b. One last thought on the animated feature category: sticking it to the computers!

Last year, all three nominated films featured new-wave CGI animation. This year, none of them do. “Howl’s Moving Castle” is traditional, hand-drawn cel animation. Both “Wallace and Gromit” and “Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride,” which is a pretty charming flick in its own right, are stop-motion animation with clay figurines. All three are beautiful examples of sadly dying art forms. Enjoy this blast from the past, because it’ll probably never happen again.

7. And the award for most peculiar Oscar nomination goes to …

The Academy tends to take a beating from people in my line of work, but I think the voters did a solid job with the nominees this year, especially in the major categories. But every year, there are a few nominations that are genuine head-scratchers.

Let’s wrap up this piece with the best of the worst for 2006:

—Best visual effects, “The Chronicles of Narnia.”

Really? You mean those beavers didn’t look completely, utterly fake to you? EDITOR'S NOTE: THEY WEREN'T REAL BEAVERS? (I GUESS THE WHOLE TALKING THING SHOULD HAVE CLUED ME IN, HUH?) How about the White Witch’s palace, which looked to me like it was made out of tissue paper and vanilla frosting?

“Best” doesn’t mean “most,” does it?

I wasn’t a fan of the final “Star Wars” installment, but come on, folks. George Lucas’s visual effects were in another league. His exclusion was all about his maverick persona and general “Star Wars” fatigue, not the obvious quality of his team’s work. EDITOR'S NOTE: EXACTLY!!! THANK YOU!!

—Best adapted screenplay, Josh Olson, “A History of Violence.”

This isn’t a dig at Olson, who did first-rate work. It’s more to point out the quirks in a nominating system that occasionally acknowledges a great film while snubbing the person chiefly responsible for its greatness. I loved this funny, gruesome, bizarro-revenge fantasy, and I’m delighted for the nominations it did receive. But I’ll bet everyone involved, including Olson, would chalk up its success to its brilliant director, David Cronenberg, who was overlooked. Good for Olson, but nominating him and not Cronenberg is a bit like giving player-of-the-game honors to Lamar Odom on the night that Kobe Bryant scored 81 points.

—Best foreign-language film, “Joyeux Noel,” France.

I haven’t seen “Joyeux Noel,” but I’m told that it’s every bit as corny as its title. I’m including it here mostly to complain about the exclusion of the French-language film “Cache,” a voyeurism thriller directed by Austria’s Michael Haneke. It was the best foreign-language film I saw all year; unfortunately, it was too Austrian to be the official selection from France, and it was too French to be the official selection from Austria. (It actually was Austria’s selection, but it was disqualified for being, I kid you not, too French. According to the rules, a country’s submission has to be in its native tongue.)

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Ang Lee was the first Asian to be nominated for the best-director Oscar. In fact, two other Asian filmmakers, Akira Kurosawa and Hiroshi Teshigahara, were previously nominated in the category, though neither man won.


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