Oscar noms: Wide open best picture race

By Martin A. Grove
Published January 24th 2007 in The Hollywood Reporter

Oscar outlook: It's hard to believe, but after so many months of speculating about who will be Oscar nominated, we can now start buzzing about who's going to win.

Looking at Academy members' nominations, it's clear they've opened what certainly looks like a wide open best picture race. By not nominating "Dreamgirls" for best picture (although they did give it eight other nods), Oscar voters have ensured that this year will depart significantly from 16 of the past 20 years when the most nominated movie wound up winning best picture. With no best picture nod for "Dreamgirls" -- and, on top of that, nothing for directing or writing -- the most nominated film can't possibly win this year. It can't be a repeat of, say, 1998 when "Titanic" had the most noms with 14 and ended up taking home 11 Oscars, including best picture! Of course, it's possible that "Babel," the film with the second most noms -- a total of seven -- could win because it did get into the best picture race.

Tuesday's nominations showed that Academy members aren't overly influenced by what other awards givers have done, although it's evident that the earlier competitions do define the field of top contenders. That's helpful because Academy members really don't have enough time to see a year's worth of movies in the few weeks before voting. Many of them aren't able to see films throughout the year because their filmmaking jobs keep them busy and frequently on location.

Perhaps the most important message that Oscar voters delivered is that times have changed and it's no longer a good thing to be the front-runner in the Oscar race. In fact, coming into the game late -- as Clint Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima" did -- is now an advantage rather than a disadvantage. Being out there early as a front-runner and having to maintain momentum for so long, as "Dreamgirls" just found out, is now perceived as a major burden.

As surprises go, the lack of picture, director and screenwriter noms for "Dreamgirls" has to rank as the Hollywood equivalent of a Category One hurricane or a Richter Scale topping earthquake. Leaving aside whether you felt "Dreamgirls" was or wasn't a fabulous movie that deserved prime noms, there were very few if any Hollywood handicappers who weren't saying in their best picture predictions "and, of course, 'Dreamgirls'" with the emphasis on "of course." The film was on everybody's list from Day One of this year's awards season -- in fact, even before Day One thanks to DreamWorks and Paramount's decision to show about 10 minutes of footage at the Cannes Film Festival last May. That early look at some of the movie's best scenes got an early buzz going right away, particularly among the awards bloggers, who were more influential than ever this year when it came to spreading buzz. Although the buzz favoring "Dreamgirls" had started to diminish a bit when its boxoffice expansion failed to set records, there were those who thought it was going to win best picture right up until it didn't get named early Tuesday morning. Marketers are likely to think twice now about trying to promote a film's Oscar potential at Cannes.

"Everybody pretends to be an expert, but they really aren't," is how one Academy member who's not personally connected to any of the best picture nominees explained the pundits being so wrong about "Dreamgirls" when we spoke Tuesday morning. "Nobody knows that many Academy members (to be able to say what they're really thinking). No one speaks to them. Believe me. It's self-hype and self-importance. It's not based on fact at all. They're a very diverse group (and) nobody really approaches them."

As for the best picture race, he emphasized, "It's a wide open race. Three Oscars are (already in effect) given away. I think that Scorsese, Helen Mirren and Forest Whitaker are givens. Everything else is wide open. I, myself, am going to vote for 'Letters From Iwo Jima' and I know a number of people who are, but I wouldn't predict that it's going to win. I think it has a very good shot. I would be very surprised if 'Departed' won best picture, but I think Scorsese's a shoo-in."

Asked how he thinks the black comedy "Little Miss Sunshine," which just won the Producers Guild of America's best picture award, will do in Oscar's best picture race he replied, "If you take the history of the Academy, if there's a serious picture they can vote for and feel proud of making a contribution to society that's what they vote for. Comedy never wins. You've got pictures like 'Babel,' 'The Queen' and 'Letters From Iwo Jima' (this year) and the Academy would sooner vote for those than vote for a comedy. There are too many choices Academy voters can make and say, 'I voted for an important picture.'"

An Oscar marketer I also spoke to Tuesday morning went along with the idea of a wide-open race, observing optimistically, "There's a case for everybody."

When asked what happened to "Dreamgirls," he replied, "I would say that 'Little Miss Sunshine' and 'Iwo Jima,' between the two of them, just pulled 'Dreamgirls' off of the radar. It's a shocker."

Because of the way the Academy's voting is structured, a film can be nominated if it gets votes from one-sixth of the membership plus one more vote. With 6,000 active Academy members, that translates to about 1,001 votes to land a nomination. That's a lot less than people typically think it takes to get nominated. In the Academy's complex method of voting, members list films in order of preference, but it's first-choice votes that are most important. In the end, to get into the race a film needs the passionate support of just over a thousand Academy members. Apparently, the passion that Academy voters had for "Dreamgirls" just didn't measure up to what they had for "Babel," "Departed," "Letters," "Sunshine" and "Queen." That could have been because they just didn't like "Dreamgirls" enough or that they started out liking it but wound up really liking the last thing they happened to see, which almost certainly was "Letters."

Winning, of course, is something else. As wide open as the best picture race appears to be, there are built-in factors that will help or hurt all of the nominees. For instance, best picture nominees that don't also have best directing noms are usually considered to be at a disadvantage. "Babel," "Departed," "Letters" and "Queen" all have directing noms while "Sunshine" does not. Just to confuse things, "Sunshine" and "Dreamgirls" have Directors Guild of America nominations as do "Babel," "Departed" and "Queen."

Another Oscar category to look at in handicapping the best picture nominees' prospects is film editing. The connection between these two categories, which might never have occurred to anyone, was perceived last year when "Brokeback Mountain" lost in the best picture race to "Crash." In explaining how this could possibly have happened, it was pointed out that "Brokeback" didn't have a best editing nod and "Crash" did. Simple as that! Statistics always help to make a point, so let's add that the last film to win a best picture Oscar without having received an editing nomination is said to have been Robert Redford's "Ordinary People" in 1981 at the Academy Awards.

Looking at this year's best picture nominees, the only two with editing nods are "Babel" and "Departed." That puts "Letters," "Sunshine" and "Queen" at a disadvantage, at least if you believe the theory of a best picture-best film editing connection makes sense.

Another factor to look at is the degree of support a best picture nominee has or is likely to get from the Academy's actors branch. With 1,251 active members, the actors branch is the biggest Academy branch and is believed to have tipped the scales in favor of "Crash's" last minute win over "Brokeback" last year and "Shakespeare In Love's" eleventh hour triumph over "Saving Private Ryan" in 1999.

Of the best picture nominees, "Babel," "Departed" and "Sunshine" received nominations in the Screen Actors Guild's best ensemble cast category, which is SAG's equivalent of a best picture category. That puts "Queen" and "Letters" at something of a disadvantage. "Queen," however, received a best actress nod for Helen Mirren from members of the Academy's acting branch and Mirren's widely regarded as the favorite to win. "Letters" doesn't have any Academy acting noms, but actors are thought to have the highest regard for actor-director Clint Eastwood so that may serve as something of a counter-balance.

Courting the actors' votes became a key Oscar marketing tactic last year when Lionsgate opted to spend $100,000 or so to send screeners of "Crash" to all SAG members. That mailing to some 90,000 actors is widely regarded as having made a huge difference in "Crash's" fortunes. All SAG members had an opportunity to see the movie and it was, of course, a great example of ensemble acting that appealed to them and got their votes.

This time around Warner Bros. sent commercial DVDs of "Departed" and Fox Searchlight Pictures sent commercial DVDs of "Sunshine" to SAG's full membership. And Miramax sent SAG members "Venus" screeners to promote Peter O'Toole's performance. As for results, O'Toole received a SAG nod for best lead male actor for "Venus" and is a best actor Oscar nominee. Leonardo DiCaprio got a SAG nomination for best male actor in a supporting role for "Departed" but his best actor Oscar nod is for his performance in "Blood Diamond." Leo didn't get into the Oscar race for "Departed." "Sunshine's" Alan Arkin received a SAG nom for best male actor in a supporting role and is also a best supporting actor Oscar nominee. Both O'Toole and Arkin have in their favor the fact that they've delivered terrific performances in their current films and have been passed over by Academy members many times before. Neither of them is getting any younger and, for that matter, neither are Academy members (nor, for that matter, are any of us).

The biggest question, however, may not be who's going to win best picture, but will anyone other than the film's distributor and principals really care? In a poll on AOL Tuesday morning people were asked, "Is your favorite movie of 2006 in the running for Best Picture?" The results, based on 29,674 votes when I checked in, were 62% No and only 38% Yes. That's not good at all.

The fact is, only one of this year's five best picture nominees is a big grossing movie that's been seen by lots of people. That's "Departed," which opened last Oct. 6 and had done nearly $122 million through last weekend when it was still playing in 127 theaters. Warners is putting it back into wide release with an Academy run that starts Friday (26) and should benefit from its best picture nominee status. "Dreamgirls" with over $77 million in domestic grosses would have been the second biggest picture in the race had it been nominated. Unfortunately, nothing else that did get nominated comes close to $77 million.

The rest of the nominees have done very well considering that they're small films, but they really haven't sold a lot of tickets yet. "Sunshine," which opened last July 26, had done nearly $60 million through last weekend when it was playing in 17 theaters. It's already in DVD release just as "Crash" was this time last year. "Queen," which opened last Sept. 30, has grossed around $36 million. It went wide last weekend with good results, finishing ninth on the chart. "Babel," which opened last Oct. 27, has taken in about $24 million. It expanded its run last weekend to 889 theaters, benefiting nicely from its Golden Globes best picture-drama win. "Letters," which opened last Dec. 20, has grossed about $2.6 million and was playing in 360 theaters last weekend. It will expand in the weeks ahead, also benefiting from being able to market itself as a best picture Oscar nominee.

Clearly, all of these films will have the advantage of their best picture noms in the weeks leading up to the Oscars. But they're not starting out with the kind of huge audience base that films have if they've already sold $100 million worth of tickets. That's got to be of concern to the Academy as it looks ahead to its Feb. 25 telecast and thinks about the ratings it wants to achieve for its advertisers. When the best picture nominees aren't for the most part films that moviegoers are heavily invested because they've seen them and have a rooting interest in whether they win, the Academy has a serious problem. It's clearly not an easy one to solve because the trend in recent years has been for smaller, independent style films that haven't yet reached large audiences to receive the lions share of Oscar's prime nods. This reflects changing tastes in movies among Academy members as well as other awards givers.

As a result, the Academy is at some point going to have to do something to increase viewer interest in its telecast. One possible solution would be to create a new award that would not be an Oscar but would have its own special name and its own special statuette and that could be bestowed on the basis of people's choice type voting online and through 800-number phone lines during the telecast. Running totals could be displayed on the screen to maintain viewer interest and involvement. Perhaps people could be allowed to vote as many times as they wanted to as that would generate the most involvement and the highest number of viewer votes.

Fitting such a new award into Oscar's already jam-packed show would certainly not be easy, but it would be worth the effort to make room for it by cutting some of the show's typically overlong filmmaker tributes and retrospectives. After all, in the end Oscar like everybody else on television must live and die by the ratings.

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Dec. 21, 1988's column: "Hemdale Film Corp., which has produced hits like 'Platoon' and 'The Last Emperor,' is expanding its domestic distribution activities to better control the destiny of its movies.

"This Friday Hemdale will be competing for moviegoers' dollars and Motion Picture Academy members' attention with its opening of 'The Boost' on seven screens in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Toronto. The drama, which was directed by Harold Becker and stars James Woods and Sean Young, adds another 200 screens Jan. 6 and will expand from there.

"'Dec. 23 has been on the boards for a while now,' Hemdale chairman John Daly told me. 'We knew we wanted to get it out and start to platform it, hopefully to see if it would get Academy attention, because the performances by James Woods and Sean Young are really tremendous. The picture is very, very controversial and I think it will get a good response...'

"'Boost,' which was executive produced by Daly and Derek Gibson and produced by Daniel Blatt, was to have been distributed domestically by Tri-Star under a deal terminated earlier this year. 'With Tri-Star, we had the highest respect for them, but we just didn't see eye to eye on the marketing of films,' observes Daly. 'We felt the films were beginning to stockpile and we wanted to get them out. We had an arrangement that if ever we went into our own distribution we could amicably settle the distribution deal. They were disappointed and we were disappointed because we'd gone into it with high hopes, but I was pleased it was ended amicably and there's no hard feelings.'"

Update: "The Boost" did not boost spirits at Hemdale with its domestic gross of approximately $785,000. It did not receive any Oscar nominations, although James Woods was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for best male lead.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.updatehollywood.com. The multilingual "Babel" clearly spoke Oscar's language Tuesday morning, when nominations for the 79th Annual Academy Awards were announced. The musical "Dreamgirls" might have earned the most nominations, eight, but it was shut out of the best picture race.

Complete list of Academy Award nominations

Instead, it earned the unenviable distinction of becoming the first movie in Oscar history to fail to earn a best picture nomination while collecting the most noms.

"Looking at the whole awards season, there is no clear front-runner," Miramax Films president Daniel Battsek said as he celebrated six noms for "The Queen" and one for Peter O'Toole's autumnal performance in "Venus."

For best picture honors, "Babel," with seven noms, will compete against the crime drama "The Departed," the Japanese-language war film "Letters From Iwo Jima," the quirky comedy "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Queen," a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II under siege from the modern media.

So far, though, a definite front-runner hasn't emerged during an awards season in which "Babel" earned the title of best drama at the Golden Globes but "Little Miss Sunshine" took the Producers Guild of America's film prize last weekend.

"Babel" might tell a globe-hopping story of cultural misunderstandings, but the 5,830 voting members of the Academy seemed to be in a particularly international mood. In the acting categories, they nominated two actresses who deliver foreign-language performances: Penelope Cruz, who stars as a ghost-haunted widow in the Spanish-language "Volver," and Rinko Kikuchi, who plays a deaf student speaking Japanese and also signing in "Babel." Kikuchi's castmate Adriana Barraza, appearing in a role that combines English and Spanish dialogue, also was rewarded with a nomination.

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron, the trio of Mexican-born directors dubbed the Three Amigos, all figured prominently as one for Peter O'Toole's autumnal performance in "Venus."

In the best picture race, "Babel," with seven noms, will compete against the crime drama "The Departed," the Japanese-language war film "Letters From Iwo Jima," the quirky comedy "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Queen," a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II under siege from the modern media.

So far, though, a definite front-runner hasn't emerged during an awards season in which "Babel" earned the title of best drama at the Golden Globes but "Sunshine" took the Producers Guild of America's film prize Saturday.

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron, the trio of Mexican-born directors dubbed the Three Amigos, all figured prominently as well. Gonzalez Inarritu's "Babel" picked up seven noms, del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" was close behind with six -- including a best foreign-language film nomination -- and Cuaron's "Children of Men" took three, including best adapted screenplay.

Commenting on the multiculturalism of this year's crop of nominees, Forest Whitaker, nominated as best actor for "The Last King of Scotland," said: "We're finally recognizing that we're all here on the planet together. We all have lives and stories that connect each other. It's amazing, really."

Said IFC Entertainment president Jonathan Sehring, "If you look at a lot of nominated films and filmmakers -- from Alfonso Cuaron to 'Babel' to 'Pan's Labyrinth' -- you see that filmmaking is now a global world, and both Hollywood and audiences aren't intimidated by subtitles anymore." IFC was behind two of the foreign-language film nominees: Denmark's "After the Wedding" and Algeria's "Days of Glory."

With several co-productions among rival studios showing up in this year's nominations, victory had many fathers. Under new chairman Brad Grey, Paramount Pictures staged a resurgence. After it picked up just three noms last year, it laid claim to 19 this time: eight for "Dreamgirls," which it co-produced with DreamWorks, now a division of Paramount, and then released; two from "Flags of Our Fathers," which DreamWorks co-produced with Warner Bros. Pictures; and nine on behalf of its specialty division Paramount Vantage, which distributed "Babel" and the documentary "An Inconvenient Truth."

Warners tallied 18 noms, with "Departed" and "Blood Diamond" leading the pack with five each, while "Iwo Jima," which it co-produced with DreamWorks, received four. As for DreamWorks, it had a role in producing three films that accounted for 14 noms.

The Walt Disney Co.'s Buena Vista distribution arm picked up 11 noms from the films that it released, but Disney claimed a chart-topping 20 noms by counting the seven belonging to its specialty division, Miramax, and two for animated shorts.

Among the specialty film divisions, Fox Searchlight -- with 10 nominations for films ranging from "Sunshine" to "Notes on a Scandal" -- was the dominant player, followed closely by Paramount Vantage with nine and Miramax with seven.

As often happens, the best director noms didn't exactly match up with the Academy's best picture choices. Nominated for their helmsmanship were Gonzalez Inarritu for "Babel," Martin Scorsese for "Departed," Clint Eastwood for "Iwo Jima" and Stephen Frears for "Queen." But instead of the "Sunshine" directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the Academy nominated Paul Greengrass for the docudrama "United 93."

The actors branch, meanwhile, ignored a number of established performers -- including Brad Pitt in "Babel," Jack Nicholson in "Departed" and Ben Affleck in "Hollywoodland" -- in favor of newcomers like 10-year-old Abigail Breslin of "Sunshine" as well as comeback performers like Jackie Earle Haley in "Little Children."

In the best actress race, "Volver's" Cruz will face off against Judi Dench, who plays a manipulative schoolteacher in "Scandal"; Helen Mirren for "Queen"; Meryl Streep for her comedy turn as a fearsome magazine editor in "The Devil Wears Prada"; and Kate Winslet, who portrays an adulterous wife in "Little Children."

In the best actor category, the nominees are Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays a soldier of fortune in "Diamond"; Ryan Gosling, who appears as an addicted teacher in "Half Nelson"; Peter O'Toole, giving him his eighth nomination, for his aging actor in "Venus"; Will Smith, who plays a father determined to improve his lot in life in "The Pursuit of Happyness"; and Whitaker, who stars as the late Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in "Last King."

The best supporting actress category is dominated by first-time nominees: Jennifer Hudson for "Dreamgirls," along with "Babel's" Barraza and Kikuchi and "Sunshine's" Breslin. The fifth nominee is Cate Blanchett, the winner in the category for 2004's "The Aviator," nominated this year for "Scandal."

Competing for best supporting actor are Alan Arkin, who plays a bawdy granddad in "Sunshine"; Haley, who returns to the screen as a sex offender in "Little Children"; Djimon Hounsou, who plays an embattled father in the midst of Sierra Leone's civil war in "Diamond"; Eddie Murphy, who sings and dances as an R&B man in "Dreamgirls"; and Mark Wahlberg, one of the good cops in "Departed."

For adapted screenplay, the seemingly improvised "Borat" cracked the nominees circle. Its writing team of Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham, Dan Mazer and Todd Phillips were nominated, along with Cuaron, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby for "Children of Men," William Monahan for "Departed," Todd Field and Tom Perrotta for "Little Children" and Patrick Marber for "Scandal."

For original screenplay, the nominees are Guillermo Arriaga for "Babel," Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis for "Iwo Jima," Michael Arndt for "Sunshine," del Toro for "Labyrinth" and Peter Morgan for "Queen."

Pedro Almodovar's Spanish entry "Volver," though it earned Cruz an acting nomination, failed to score a best foreign-language film nomination. Those nominations went to Denmark's "After the Wedding," Algeria's "Days of Glory," Germany's "The Lives of Others," Mexico's "Labyrinth" and Canada's "Water."

For best animated feature, the Academy nominated Pixar's "Cars," Warner Bros. Pictures' "Happy Feet" and Sony Pictures' "Monster House."

Although voters might have turned a deaf ear to "Dreamgirls" as a best picture nominee, the music branch was humming its tune. Because the film is an adaptation of the 1981 Broadway musical, most of its songs weren't eligible because they weren't original to the film. But Henry Krieger, working with several collaborators, wrote four new songs for the film, and three of them -- "Listen," "Love You I Do" and "Patience" -- earned nominations, dominating the original song category, which also includes Randy Newman's "Our Town" from "Cars" and Melissa Etheridge's "I Need to Wake Up" from "Truth." In fact, "Wake Up" was the first song from a docu nominated in the category since "Mondo Cane" introduced the pop tune "More" in 1963.

The nominations were announced at the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills by Academy president Sid Ganis and Salma Hayek, a best actress nominee for 2002's "Frida." Winners will be announced at the Oscar ceremony, hosted by Ellen DeGeneres, on Feb. 25 at the Kodak Theatre at Hollywood & Highland.

Nicole Sperling in Los Angeles and Gregg Goldstein in Park City contributed to this report.