Inside the Oscar campaign

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NY Mag has an encompassing article on the Oscar campaign.

The Messenger, which has grossed only about $800,000, is probably the least-seen movie that has a shot at a Best Picture nomination; after the AFI ceremony, in the driveway of the Four Seasons Hotel, I hear a publicist for a rival film mutter grimly into his cell phone, “I don’t know if that movie is on the radar or not, but that clip killed.” The Messenger is distributed by Oscilloscope, a New York–based indie run by Beastie Boy Adam Yauch and David Fenkel. “You never know how these things will shape up,” says Fenkel. “Every couple of weeks, films that you thought were contenders turn out not to be, so you’re constantly revising your expectations. And what we found was that in early December, Woody Harrelson’s performance started getting a lot of traction.”

For movies without a huge campaign budget, that kind of break is critical: Actors form the Academy’s largest branch, and a talked-about performance like Harrelson’s can lead voters to watch the DVD and perhaps consider other long-shot choices—like the screenplay (which does, in fact, get nominated) or even the film itself (which doesn’t). Oscilloscope sent screeners to voters early, a real gamble for a company without even a small studio budget, where even a single “For Your Consideration” ad page, which commands between $13,000 and $30,000, requires a cost-benefit analysis. But even in a season of relative austerity, money still matters, and it’s hard to argue that the playing field is level when you’re driving from one studio party to another through a city in which every other billboard (price: $50,000 and up for four weeks) seems to be touting Inglourious Basterds or Up in the Air. (At least Up in the Air is still trying to sell movie tickets. The billboards for Basterds, long gone from theaters, are clearly meant for Academy voters only—Harvey Weinstein, who released the movie, being Oscar’s most remorseless campaigner.)
Avatar would shatter precedent by becoming the first Best Picture winner since 1933 to take the prize without any acting or writing nominations. The Hurt Locker, which has taken in just under $13 million at the U.S. box office, would shatter precedent by becoming the lowest-grossing winner since the fifties.
Bullock, who has never come anywhere near an Oscar nomination but is riding a wave of big box office and positive press for The Blind Side, is almost as good as Streep at the podium: She gives the kind of emotive, funny, ingratiating speech that makes people say, “Maybe she should win,” just because it seems like fun. All at once, we have a contest—and the most interesting acting face-off of the season, since the excellent narrative behind Streep (namely, There Is No Way on God’s Green Earth That This Woman Should Have Fewer Best Actress Oscars Than Hilary Swank) must now fight off Bullock’s, the much simpler Who’da Thunk It?!
And why James Cameron is basically trying to lose his Oscar:
“I would ask you not to be humble,” the first questioner begins. No problem. Cameron quickly advances what amounts to a three-pronged case for why Avatar should win the Oscar. Ebulliently, he muses that the film’s technological leaps could “give permission to other filmmakers” to take 3-D out of the ghettos of “high-end animation and lowbrow live-action”; he points out that the movie, which he envisioned as a “shameless engine of commerce,” is only the second sci-fi film to take this prize; and he notes that it’s “very interesting that a major Hollywood commercial film is in some way controversial, whether it’s the environmental theme or some of the political themes.” It’s an aggressive sell: Tonight, he wants all of the Oscar narratives—The Chance to Make History, The Popular Favorite, The Movie That Speaks to This Moment.

And then, he goes too far. He keeps talking. And he does the one thing that no winner should ever do in a roomful of journalists: He disses Meryl Streep.

A reporter asks him why Avatar’s motion-capture performances haven’t gotten more respect from actors. “I’m going to give you an example,” Cameron says, clearly recalling the encounter I witnessed with the actress after the Critics’ Choice Awards. “I had always wanted to meet her—and I was talking about the performance-capture stuff and I was mentioning how all the actors love doing it. And she said, ‘Oh, yes, I know. I had such a great time doing Fantastic Mr. Fox.’ I thought ‘Oh, my God, this is a perfect example of what’s wrong!’ She didn’t perform the character physically over a period of months. She did a voice performance maybe for a day, maybe for two days, on a lectern!” From far away, I can feel Fox executives emitting psychic beams: “Stop talking now.”

“It’s almost like Asperger’s with him,” a producer tells me later. “How many years has it taken him to live down ‘I’m the King of the World!’? When he shifts into that mode of talking about how great his movies are and how other people just don’t get it, he is literally incapable of understanding how he sounds. And I say that as a fan! He makes it incredibly hard to vote for him.”

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