The unkindest cut
IF “Little Miss Sunshine” wins the Oscar for best picture, it will represent a phenomenal underdog victory for a raucous road-trip comedy that cost barely $7 million to make, was turned down by studios everywhere and was directed by a husband-and-wife team who’d never made a feature before.
But for the film academy, a “Little Miss Sunshine” victory will be a huge public-relations embarrassment. Thanks to a misguided rule instituted to rein in credit inflation, if the film wins on Sunday only some of the film’s five producers will be allowed on stage to accept the award. This comes despite the fact that the producers’ own peer group, the Producers Guild of America, awarded credit to all five of the film’s producers.
Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger, who’ve been a producing team for nearly 15 years, are the “Sunshine” producers in line to get the royal shaft, all because the academy has instituted a wildly arbitrary rule saying a film can only have three legitimate producers.
There have been other producer disputes, notably a decision last year that kept “Crash” producer Bob Yari from accepting the best picture award for “Crash.” But what makes this year’s academy ruling so infuriating is that it slights two producers who are poster boys for their profession, known in the independent film community as honest, hard-working, low-ego guys devoted to making the kind of movies the academy often wishes it had more of.
The decision is so unpopular that a number of top producers are speaking out about it, even at the risk of damaging their relations with the academy. “Ron and Albert are distinguished producers with a nose for good material at a time when finding good material should be honored,” says “World Trade Center” producer Michael Shamberg, who also produced the Oscar-nominated “Erin Brockovich.” “If the academy is going to discriminate against such established producers, it’s time to fix the rules.”
Even Mark Johnson, who won an Oscar for producing “Rain Man” and is one of three members of the academy’s producers branch on the academy’s board of governors, is upset. “I’m sick about the situation,” he says. “It’s patently unfair. There are a number of us who want to address some sort of new procedure that accurately weeds out non-producers but still recognizes the true producers, no matter how many there may be.”
A producing team since 1993, Berger and Yerxa have made films with a number of gifted directors, notably Alexander Payne (“Election”), Anthony Minghella (“Cold Mountain”) and Steven Soderbergh (“King of the Hill”). This Oscar season should have been a time of exultation for the duo, since they were also producers of “Little Children,” a highly praised film by Todd Field.
When I phoned them Thursday, they refused to discuss the academy’s ruling, saying they didn’t want to do anything to hurt the film in the run-up to the awards. But on a public panel a few weeks ago at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, they made it clear they deserved as much credit as any of their “Sunshine” colleagues. As Berger put it: “No matter what the academy decided, we produced this movie.”
What’s especially galling about the academy’s decision is that it’s more about image management than the complicated reality of producing movies today. It’s no secret that many academy members were appalled in 1999 when Harvey Weinstein took a producer’s credit for “Shakespeare in Love,” which ended up winning best picture, leading to a scrum of producers crowding the stage, all fighting for the microphone.
The consensus was that Weinstein, then head of Miramax, had overstepped his bounds, giving himself a producer credit for doing what was already his job -- greenlighting a film. The Producers Guild, already stung by a stream of stories about films populated with enough producers to field a couple of football teams, came up with a specific formula for deciding how much a producer contributed to a film. Each part of the process was given a specific weight: 30% for developing the film, 20% for being involved in pre-production, 20% for work during production and 30% for participating in post-production and marketing.
The guild assembled a three-person arbitration committee to make credit decisions after taking statements from a film’s producers as well as third-party verifications from film crew department heads. It was this committee that awarded credit to all five producers of “Sunshine” and advised the academy to do the same.
The three credited producers -- Marc Turtletaub, David T. Friendly and Peter Saraf -- are all eminently deserving. But it’s hard to imagine how the executive committee of the academy’s producers branch could possibly have ruled against Yerxa and Berger. They were there at the beginning, finding the script back in 2001 because of a relationship with screenwriter Michael Arndt, who’d been Matthew Broderick’s assistant on “Election.” They also had a relationship with the film’s directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who were the producing team’s choice to direct the picture even when bigger names were being considered.
The duo gave the script early on to Michael Beugg, who later became the film’s line producer. They also brought in Tim Suhrstedt, the film’s cinematographer. While neither producer spent more than a few days on the set during the 30-day shoot, they were both on set and involved with the conception of the re-shoot of the film’s ending. They also played a major role in the film’s arrival at Sundance, through Yerxa’s long-standing friendship with Sundance Festival Director Geoffrey Gilmore.
So why’d they get the shaft? The obvious problem is the academy’s three-producer limit, which seems especially arbitrary when you consider that no such rule exists for the academy’s screenplay nominees. In fact, this year five screenwriters are nominated for best screenplay adaptation for “Children of Men” and five for story and screenplay for “Borat.”
Perhaps having sensed how unfair the ruling now appears, academy Executive Director Bruce Davis refused to discuss the matter. In the academy’s defense, they do have credit restrictions in other areas, nearly all a reaction to an embarrassing incident. After a dozen or so art directors trooped up on stage to accept an award for “Ben-Hur,” the academy limited art direction nominees to one, with some exceptions. There is also a maximum of two nominees for best song (also with some exceptions) after concern was raised when a Counting Crows song (with the music and lyrics credited to seven band members) was nominated in the category.
The best song rules make allowances for established songwriting teams who are counted as one nominee. This only highlights another one of the flaws in the three-producer rule, in that it discriminates against established producing teams. Faced with the difficult decision of having to exclude two of five deserving producers on “Sunshine,” the academy’s executive committee took the path of least resistance and dropped the producing team, apparently deciding it would be even more divisive to accept one member of the team and bump the other. To its credit, the PGA treats producer teams as one entity, preventing this very problem from happening.
Another failing of the producer credit limit is that it ignores the complexities of assembling film projects in a global marketplace. Especially with independently financed films, which increasingly make up the bulk of Oscar best picture nominees, producer credits are a road map to how the movie got made. While the popular notion is that producers practice their craft on a film set, in reality the most difficult part of the job is often the laborious efforts that go into putting a movie together before a foot of film has been shot.
“Once you’re shooting, it’s largely the director’s movie,” Shamberg says. “Before that, it takes perseverance and imagination to get the project going. There is no question that there are times when it takes more than three people to produce a movie.”
Having a three-producer limit is patently unfair. But if forced to choose between being unfair or bending to outside criticism, the academy, clearly fearful that reversing a decision will open the floodgates for other complaints about its arcane rule book, will opt for unfairness every time.
Academy insiders hint they’ll consider a rule change next year. That’s small consolation for Yerxa and Berger, who, if their movie wins, deserve the opportunity to be on stage and take a bow. Ask any producer -- it’s a moment in the spotlight that doesn’t comes along very often.
“The Big Picture” appears Tuesdays in Calendar.