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Academy Voters Feel the Heat of Campaign Fever

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jack Smight is a man under siege.

The 75-year-old retired director sighs as he displays the stacks of 62 movies on tape and DVD that arrived steadily for weeks on the doorstep of his Valencia home.

In another room, he points to the shelves near his stereo system that are now lined with free movie soundtracks shipped by anxious studios. And, if that weren’t enough, screenplays for films like “A Beautiful Mind,” “In the Bedroom” and “Gosford Park” have dropped into his mailbox with generous regularity.

“Pretty soon, they all meld into one,” the soft-spoken director of the 1966 Paul Newman film “Harper” says with frustration. “I love films, but to have to sit down every night and look at one or two and make notes, it’s not always a pleasant situation.”

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But wade through them he must, for Smight is an Oscar voter.

This year, more than ever, Hollywood studios have waged multimillion-dollar ad campaigns and sent nominees fanning out on the publicity circuit to woo the 5,739 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Somewhat overwhelmed but dutiful, the voters, who are less frequently heard from, have quietly gone about their time-consuming and often thankless task of selecting the winners who will be announced Sunday at the 74th Academy Awards.

Toss out any notion that this is an objective, well-oiled process. The academy itself concedes that studios have bent some of the rules to flog their films.

Screenwriter and director Dale Launer, whose writing credits include “My Cousin Vinny,” said he takes his Oscar voting as seriously as the next person, but he admits he won’t spend more than a couple of minutes watching a movie on his VCR if he thinks it’s a stinker.

“Sometimes you get something in,” Launer said, “and it’s for best picture consideration and you just say something like, ‘Yeah, in your dreams!’”

Cinematographer John Hora, whose credits include “Gremlins,” won’t vote on any category for which he doesn’t see a majority of movies with nominations.

This year, he said, he voted for the one category he felt most comfortable about--best cinematography--leaving blank everything else on his final ballot, including the best picture category with nominees “A Beautiful Mind,” “In the Bedroom,” “Gosford Park,” “Moulin Rouge” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.”

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“I’ve seen ‘Moulin Rouge’ three times, but I always fall asleep,” Hora said. “I saw ‘Lord of the Rings’ both [in the theater and on DVD]. I liked the first hour, and then I don’t care for it much. The effects looked better on DVD.”

The truth is, voting for the Academy Awards is a highly subjective, sometimes haphazard and occasionally frazzled process.

In interviews with a small cross-section of Oscar voters, they complained that they often lack the expertise to vote in categories outside their professions.

Many are so busy making a living in a business in which 18-hour days are common that they don’t have time to watch all the movies. And they often end up voting as much with their hearts as with their minds, influenced, they admit, by friendships and industry buzz but not by the screaming four-color advertisements that incessantly target them.

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In its own way, the Oscar voting process is as confusing as a Palm Beach County butterfly ballot.

During the nominating process, the academy’s actors branch votes on the acting categories, the directors branch on the directors, the writers on the writers and so on. The five best picture nominees are selected by the entire voting membership.

The final ballots are then mailed to all voting members, who this year were required to return them no later than 5 p.m. Tuesday so that PricewaterhouseCoopers could begin tabulating them. When it comes to the final ballot, members vote in all categories, except for foreign-language film, documentaries and short films (in those categories voters cast ballots only after seeing an official screening).

The academy does try to give Oscar voters a little guidance. When they first become academy members, they receive a pamphlet that includes tips from experts on judging various categories. Each year, the academy also slips a note in with the final ballot telling voters that it’s OK to leave some categories blank if they prefer.

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For people not skilled in a craft, the technical categories can cause them to throw up their hands. How does one judge best sound? Or best editing? Or best musical score? In many ways, the voters aren’t so different from the average, passionate but less than fully schooled member of the audience.

Hairstylist Barbara Lorenz, who recently worked on the sci-fi film “The Time Machine,” faced that problem when she watched “Memento,” director Christopher Nolan’s quirky murder mystery told backward. The film is up for best editing and best original screenplay.

“I heard it was very confusing,” Lorenz said. “I felt if I left to go get popcorn and go to the bathroom, I’d miss out on something. It was kind of difficult for me to pay attention because it was backward. When I left, I said, ‘Who the hell killed her?’”

Christina Smith, the makeup supervisor on such films as “Schindler’s List” and “Hook,” noted that best sound is always a tough one for her to judge.

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“I know what good sound is, but I’m not an expert on it,” Smith said. “I usually talk to a soundman [and ask], ‘What is the best sound?’”

In her own field, Smith just wishes that more academy voters understood what goes into an Oscar-worthy endeavor.

“If you do a job so well they don’t know it’s makeup,” Smith said. “Our peer group understands that, but I don’t know that the entire academy understands.”

The academy has, over the years, taken steps to limit the outside influence on its voters. Rules have been adopted that prohibit studios from wining and dining voters, telephoning them at home or sending them tapes packaged in ornate gift boxes.

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Voter Was Invited to

‘Moulin Rouge’ Party

The academy has put studios on notice that any attempt to influence Oscar voters will be dealt with harshly--from withholding Academy Award tickets to eliminating a film from competition, a draconian step that has never been taken.

But the reality remains that in Hollywood, where everyone seems to know everybody else, Oscar voters often get invited to dinner parties or private screenings where a director or a star might just be on hand to chat and answer questions.

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Screenwriter Launer recalls receiving an invitation this year to a Jan. 17 party at Le Dome in West Hollywood that was hosted by actor Michael York and his wife. The invitation was to celebrate the “six Golden Globe nominations and DVD release” of “Moulin Rouge.” Director Baz Luhrmann was in attendance.

At the time, Launer said, he was wrestling with whether to vote for Luhrmann for the Directors Guild of America’s top feature film award or Peter Jackson for “The Lord of the Rings.”

“It was fun; [Luhrmann] is a nice guy,” Launer said. “Peter Jackson did a great job in ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ What a sensational movie. It was consistent all the way through. Sweeping cameras [just like] ‘Moulin Rouge.’ So, who do I vote for?”

Launer paused and, hinting he eventually voted for Luhrmann, said: “Now, had I gone to a party and met Peter and he was just as nice ... ?”

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In seeking out Oscar, studios and their publicity machines have turned actors and directors into virtual politicians, sending them out to press the flesh with anyone who might remotely cast a ballot.

One favorite place for Oscar candidates to show up is the Motion Picture and Television Fund’s retirement home in Woodland Hills. This Oscar season saw directors Ron Howard, Jackson and Luhrmann as well as actors Michelle Pfeiffer and Billy Bob Thornton making appearances before the retirees. Luhrmann made several visits, sources say.

But academy Executive Director Bruce Davis said stars and directors are wasting their time if they think the retirement home is a good place to mine Oscar votes.

“I checked two years ago,” Davis said, “and do you know how many votes come out of the motion picture home? Two!”

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Chatting with a movie star or A-list director at a party might occasionally influence a vote, but the real thing they listen to are recommendations from friends and colleagues urging them to see a certain movie or performance.

Indeed, voters can’t escape the buzz about films that circulates in the Hollywood gossip mill and concede that what people are saying will whet their curiosity to go see a movie, at the very least.

Animation producer Jane Baer, who has worked on such films as “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” says that this sort of talk has an effect on Oscar voters “because you respect the opinions of your peers, and if they say you’ve got to go see this great performance, you will. That affects me, initially, to go see it. I may come out with a totally different opinion, but not usually.”

And what if a friend or colleague is nominated?

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“I suppose if your best friend had done a film and it was getting some buzz and you went to one of these screenings, it would have some influence,” Smight said. “That’s the hardest thing now, to be fully objective about it. In one sense, I’m sort of glad that I’ve retired.”

In recent years, a debate has raged inside the academy over the power of studio ads to sway Oscar votes. It is estimated that studios have spent as much as $10 million or more during this year’s Oscar season.

Smight, an academy voter for more than 40 years, said he is “very upset” every time he picks up the trade newspapers and sees all the Oscar ads staring him in the face.

“It’s incredible,” he said. “It’s bound to have some kind of influence [on voters].”

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Others scoff at the suggestion that the Oscar ads influence votes.

“I can’t imagine anyone being swayed by it,” said film editor Michael Jablow.

Oscar Ads Embarrassing, Says Academy Chief

When it comes to Oscar ads, the academy’s Davis is blunt, calling them embarrassing and adding that “everybody wishes it would just go away.” But he also said that Oscar voters aren’t influenced by them.

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“The analogy is political advertising,” Davis said. “There, I think, it is generally accepted that ads do have influence in swaying voters because the wide public doesn’t understand much about politics.

“Here, the audience is the cream of the world’s filmmakers. The idea that a [director like] Curtis Hanson or Martin Scorsese is going to decide the best director of the year by reading an ad in the trade papers is just absurd.”

In the last few years, a new wrinkle in ad campaigning has surfaced with the studios producing DVDs depicting how their Oscar-nominated films were made or publishing handsome booklets showing scenes from the movies.

Ric Robertson, the academy’s No. 2 administrative executive, said it is not permissible for a studio to mail these DVDs directly to voters. But they circumvent the rule by providing Hollywood’s two major trade publications with a supply for their subscribers, many of them voters.

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“We have to figure out a way to make it a violation of the rules and look for ways to fix it,” Robertson said. “We don’t want this to be a contest of the making of the best film.”

While the academy membership includes top actors and filmmakers, the rank-and-file voter is not necessarily a household name. Nominees in any category are virtually always invited to join the academy. Others must be sponsored by two members of their respective branch, and meet requirements regarding years spent in the industry or having credits on Oscar-caliber movies.

Over the years, the academy has been criticized for failing to recognize diversity when it comes to race, gender and age. One voter said the joke he hears at academy screenings is that you can’t hear the dialogue for the sound of Medic Alert tags banging against oxygen tanks.

Davis bristles at this, saying that conclusion is drawn because voters who attend Oscar screenings at the academy in Beverly Hills are almost exclusively retired.

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The closest the academy comes to defining its voters is to list them by the branches they belong to. Because the actors branch constitutes a significant 23% of the voting membership, critics argue, it is often the tail that wags the dogs when choosing best picture.

On Academy Awards night, when the accountants from PricewaterhouseCoopers hand the sealed envelopes to the celebrities on stage, voters like Jack Smight out in Valencia might argue with the choices of their fellow academy members, but he certainly understands what they all went through as judges.

With his wife, Joyce, a former actress, at his side, Smight made it a point to sit down in front of the TV night after night and take notes on many of the films he judged.

Is he relieved that the long Oscar season is now almost at an end?

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Well, yes, Smight says. But he is also a member of the television academy, and the Emmy Awards season is just around the corner.


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