America's sweetheart, Mary Pickford, was desperate for an Oscar. So in 1929, she threw a party for the voters - all five of them. And, says critic Roger Ebert, it worked.
"They all had a great time with the queen of Hollywood," he says. "And then they gave her an Oscar."
Marlon Brando was just as determined to reject his in 1973, which made for a strange evening, says the Motion Picture Academy's Bruce Davis.
"There was no provision made for somebody sending a statuette that had been rejected backstage," he recalls.
This year's mini-controversy, in a city where controversy is regarded as a publicity bonanza, involves the Best Picture nominees. Up there with the likes of Traffic, Erin Brockovich, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the eventual winner Gladiator, is Chocolat. Some suggest that this sweet little film bought its way into the party.
Says Ebert, "I think, in the case of Chocolat, the campaign definitely got the film nominated, because it wasn't good enough to be one of the five best films without a campaign like that."
Miramax ran an effective campaign for the film. The movie was released late in the year, and heavily promoted in the New York and Los Angeles markets, where most of the nearly 6,000 Motion Picture Academy members (and voters) live. The plan has worked for Miramax every year for the past ten years: during that period, at least one of its films was nominated every year for best picture.
"How can it happen?" says Ebert. "It can happen because the Academy voters really don't know anything more about the movies than anyone else does. And like everyone else, they look at trade ads, and they listen to the buzz, and they go along with the crowd."
"That, to me, is the only way to account for the fact that Gladiator got 12 nominations and isn't really a very good picture," he added.
But, like a scene from Gladiator, critic Ebert gets his own big thumbs-down from Academy executive director Davis. Academy voters, Davis says indignantly, are not so gullible.
"These are guys that practice this art form at the highest possible levels," he says. "They spend their lives making movies, and they watch movies with an understanding not only of their own craft, but of all the other contributing crafts that would dumbfound the average moviegoer, the average movie critic. When you're ... aiming trade paper ads at these kinds of guys, it's like ... aiming junebugs at a fast-moving Harley. It does not have much effect on the direction."
In fact, all those ads are simply aimed at getting both average moviegoers nd Academy voters to see the film.
"I think that there's a disconnect sometimes between films that are critical favorites, ones the critics are rooting for, and ones that audiences embrace," says Miramax's Marcy Granata. "Chocolat is sophisticated entertainment. But it's also a big audience pleaser. It's a big audience movie. And the Academy is a large audience."
Chocolat producer David Brown is offended by the sniping, particularly, he says, by "the idea that an Academy voter could be manipulated. The point that a movie such as (Chocolat) ... could get an Oscar because of advertising and promotion is wrong."
Los Angeles Times entertainment reporter Patrick Goldstein calls Chocolat "definitely a triumph of marketing," adding that what's really wrong and out of control is the escalating spending.
"In Washington," he explains, "we're having a big debate right now about campaign (finance) reform, because money has polluted the political process. And I think in Hollywood, if everyone was honest, we'd be having a debate right now about (whether there should) be limitations on how much money a studio can spend to help influence and buy an Oscar."
How much are the studios spending? Well, they won't say. But estimates are several million dollars per film for television and newspapers ads, the "for your consideration" pages in the trade papers. And then there's the cost of sending stars to all those awards shows leading up to the Oscars. Every ad and every appearance is an opportunity to reach out to Oscar voters. And while the Oscar is nice, the trophy itself may not be the big prize.
"An Oscar nomination is perhaps more important than the Oscar," explains Brown, "because you have a period of, almost a month and a half, two months, in which to call attention to the film's nomination, and raise the box office, which we have done, in the case of Chocolat. If we had received no nominations at all, the projection was about $35 million. Well, we're up to $51 million now and counting."
Since the days of Mary Pickford, the Academy has worked to curb efforts to influence voters, to remove even the slightest appearance that the outcome is in any way fixed. The balloting is secret, and the only freebies that voters are allowed to receive are copies of the films and scripts under consideration.
And that's it.
Well, that's almost it.
Some actors go out and try to drum up support at places like the Motion Picture and Television Fund Home, a retirement village for Hollywood veterans like retired actor Hal Little. He says Willem Dafoe dropped by with his film, Shadow of the Vampire.
And while Little admits that such visits make an impression, he adds, "But you got to remember, there are not that many Academy Award members out here. You're asking me if it makes a difference. No, I really don't thik it does."
Lions Gate Films was the studio behind Shadow of the Vampire, and the campaign for his Best Supporting Actor nomination began last May. But Lions Gate's effort was modest compared to studios which have thrown screening parties worldwide in the search for votes.
Says Lions Gate co-president Mark Urman, "You have to remember that when you enter the contest and you start thinking every vote matters, that's when you start thinking, 'What can I do to guarantee one more vote, one more vote? There are 18 members in Italy. What do I do in Italy?' You can do it in Rome, where there are a few members, and Paris, where there are a few members. You can pick up, you know, a lot of votes, if you add them all up."
Director Steven Soderbergh, twice nominated this year for Erin Brockovich and Traffic, wonders if it's money well spent.
"I have no idea. I really don't," says Soderbergh. "The funny thing is, there's no way to quantify it. And so out of fear, everybody just keeps upping the ante in the hopes that they'll punch through, and then everybody else has to do the same thing for fear of being left behind. It kind of just escalates on its own. I don't know what the answer is."
Studio executives "would love not to be spending this money. They don't want to spend this enormous amount of money but no one can see a way to stop it," says Davis.
"This is how movies are marketed, how music is marketed, how all pop culture is marketed," says Goldstein of the Los Angeles Times. "It just took the studios a little longer to figure out that Oscar voters can be marketed, too."
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