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An Oscar for ‘Croupier’ Doesn’t Seem in the Cards

The Times’ Kenneth Turan called me “an elegant jewel, hard and bright, where the austerity of Robert Bresson meets the laconic toughness of Raymond Chandler.”

Newsweek’s David Ansen said I was “coolly hypnotic, tautly directed, cunningly written and a reminder that movies don’t have to wave their arms and scream to hold our attention.”

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Nov. 17, 2000 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 17, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Quote attribution--In “The Big Picture” column in Tuesday’s Calendar, a capsule review of the film “Gone in 60 Seconds” was mistakenly attributed. The author of the review was Bill Bregoli of Westwood One Radio Network.

New York magazine’s Peter Rainer hailed me as a “triumph of sharp storytelling and dry-ice urbanity.”

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My name is “Croupier” and as much as I hate to brag, if there were ever an underdog movie to root for at Oscar time, it would have to be me.

Try to find a movie that got better reviews this year: You’ll find me everywhere on critics’ Top 10 lists. And you have to love my back story. Abandoned by my financiers, snubbed by every distributor, I ended up being the surprise hit of the Shooting Gallery film series for “orphaned” films, an ongoing exhibition in 20 major U.S. markets for films that were not picked up for distribution.

My acclaim has rejuvenated the career of Mike Hodges, my director, and made a budding star of my handsome leading man, Clive Owen, who just got a part in the next Robert Altman movie.

Considering that it’s one of the weakest years for Oscar movies in recent memory--"Gladiator” was a perfectly enjoyable summer movie, but do you really think it’s an Oscar picture?--you could hardly blame me if I’d already been fitted for my tux and reserved one of those limos that looks like an Oscar Meyer wiener.

There’s just one problem: I’m not eligible for an Oscar! I’m only wearing sunglasses to hide my tears--the whole thing makes me want to cry like a baby.

“Croupier” does have a sad story to tell. How can a movie with such impeccable critical credentials be shut out of the Oscar race? Blame it on Rule 3, Section 3 of the Academy Awards rule book. It requires that to be eligible for this year’s Oscars, films must not only have a Los Angeles qualifying run in 2000, they cannot be exhibited or broadcast outside the United States before Jan. 1, 1999.

Unbeknownst to the Shooting Gallery or the filmmakers, “Croupier” played in Singapore for two weeks in July 1998, where it made $22,000. When the academy learned in early September of the Singapore showings--tipped off by publicists working for rival Oscar contenders--it ruled the movie ineligible for Oscar consideration.

Mortified, Mike Kaplan, the film’s marketing strategist, had lunch with Bruce Davis, the academy’s executive director and asked the academy to grant the film a waiver. Kaplan followed up with an impassioned letter to the academy’s board of governors, arguing that it was impossible to police an “abandoned” film’s release in every minor territory around the world.

The academy board met on Sept. 26 and granted the film a waiver. But “Croupier’s” victory was short-lived. Within days, online columnist Jeffrey Wells, after being tipped off by a top Oscar publicist, broke the news in his “Hollywood Confidential” column on Reel.com that the film had once aired on Dutch TV in November 1998. When Davis polled board members again, the vote was overwhelming--there would be no waiver for “Croupier.”

In an Oct. 6 letter to Kaplan, Davis said that “granting the film a concession unprecedented in the academy’s history was going to open a very full Pandora’s box for us. . . . To bend two rules for one picture would begin to look not like mercy but prejudice.”

Fair enough, but I would argue that academy voting is influenced by plenty of prejudices: Why are British actors routinely taken more seriously than their American peers? Why are comedies, no matter how accomplished, always passed over for self-important historical dramas? Why do studios spend millions on trade ads if hype doesn’t influence Oscar decisions?

The academy likes to see itself as a bastion of inclusiveness. Yet by shutting out “Croupier,” it sends the opposite message. As Chick Hearn would say, a two-week run in Singapore is a ticky-tack foul. Make the punishment fit the crime. If Oscar publicists break the rules governing overzealous wooing of academy members, the academy’s only recourse is the threat of withholding studios’ Oscar-night tickets. But when “Croupier” is shown once on Dutch TV, the academy takes no prisoners.

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The rule itself dates back to a controversy involving Charlie Chaplin’s “Limelight,” which was made in 1952 but didn’t play in Los Angeles until 1972. After the film won an Oscar for best original score, the academy drafted Rule 3, Section 3 largely as a means of preventing films that were already established classics from competing with new pictures.

The rule ignores the realities of today’s complicated global financing arrangements. It is one thing to require a team of Oscar marketing specialists to adhere to every clause in the rule book. It is another thing to demand the same strict compliance of foreign sales agents scrambling to make back their investment in some far corner of the globe.

If “Croupier” had popped up in Singapore in February 1999--more than a year before its Los Angeles qualifying run--it would still be an Oscar contender. So the academy is essentially saying that it has disqualified the film not because it was shown in Singapore (and on Dutch TV), but because it was shown before an arbitrary deadline.

As much as I respect the academy’s concern over bending rules--after all, a similar dispute in last week’s presidential election could provoke a constitutional crisis--things are only going to get worse. What Davis refers to as a Pandora’s box is already here: It’s called the Internet. If you think “Croupier” has a beef, wait till next year when the academy disqualifies hundreds of deserving short films because they aired on the Web without playing theatrically in Los Angeles or at certain designated film festivals.

Davis argues that once you make one waiver, “you’ll have 100 requests on your desk the next day for other pictures.” He cites the recent example of a potential candidate for the academy’s best documentary category, which arrived the morning after the submission deadline. He considered extending the deadline, but the next day two more submissions arrived. A day later, two more films showed up.

“If you start bending the rules, it’s a very slippery slope,” says Davis. “The Oscars, like so many things, are ultimately a contest about fairness. And I think one of the virtues of fairness is holding everyone to the same set of rules.”

Fair enough. But one area where the academy needs to consider new rules involves the dirty-trick tactics of rival Oscar publicists. Just ask Wells, whose column is a prime launching pad for best picture buzz during Oscar season. “It’s no longer enough for publicists to flack their own movies by playing up their virtues,” he says. “Now the game, at least in part, is about torpedoing the competition. It’s become like big-time dirty presidential politics.”

As for “Croupier,” I’d still like to see the academy do the right thing, which is what it did initially in September--give “Croupier” a second chance. When we praise great art, we salute artists who allow us to see the world in a new light. The greatest compliment you can pay any filmmaker is to say that they broke the rules. The academy should do the same for “Croupier.” It’s a film that, come Oscar time, deserves a firm embrace, not a slap in the face.

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One of my pet peeves is the way movie studios have devalued film critics by splashing newspaper ads with raves from junket press lightweights, known in the industry as “quote whores.” So imagine my delight when DreamWorks marketing wizard Terry Press told the Wall Street Journal in late September that “speaking for DreamWorks, we won’t use anything from a quotemeister.” So why did the studio’s ads for “The Legend of Bagger Vance” feature blurbs from two familiar quotemeisters--Bill Bregoli of the Westwood One Radio Network and Bill Diehl of ABC Radio Network?

Press’ defense: Bregoli and Diehl aren’t really quotemeisters, even though it was Diehl this summer who called “Gone in 60 Seconds” a “throttle-mashing white-knuckle ride.” “Bregoli and Diehl may be on the line but they have legitimate outlets--there really is a Westwood One Network,” says Press. “Quotemeisters are people like Susan Granger or Ron Brewington that studios call and get them to say what you want or people that have no traceable outlet. If you take a blurb from a real review, not just get a quote on demand, I consider it a legitimate source.”

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“The Big Picture” will run every Tuesday in Calendar. If you have questions, criticism or ideas, e-mail them to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.


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