Hollywood’s fate is sealed in Bethlehem. Bethlehem, Connecticut, that is, where 74-year-old nun Mother Dolores lives and prays. As one of the 5,783 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members entitled to vote, the Benedictine nun is one of the people with the fate of countless filmmakers in her hands, with a say over who gets one of the most hyped prizes on the planet: the Academy Award for Best Picture.
In theory, any film can win the Best Picture Oscar as long as it is at least 40 minutes in length and is shown for seven consecutive days in at least one commercial theater in Los Angeles County. That means 265 films are in the running for the Oscars for 2012, to be awarded on February 24.
At first glance, there appears to be no logic as to which of them wins Best Picture. “You can have the best intentions in the world, but at the end of the day, nobody has a clue who or what is going to win,” says Leonardo DiCaprio, who has played the lead role in two Best Picture–winning films -- Titanic (1997) and The Departed (2006) -- that couldn’t be more different. “It’s all a big game.”
Jodie Foster, who won Best Actress for The Accused (1998) and for The Silence of the Lambs (1991), shares his view: “As you sit there at the awards ceremony, it’s like being at a tombola and you think to yourself, ‘Please, please, please let them draw my number.’ ”
Saul Zaentz, one of the most decorated producers in Oscar history with three Best Picture awards to his name, can suggest only one recipe for success. “You’ve got to be a lucky devil. When we won for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, we were seen as lucky assholes; after Amadeus, we were the very lucky assholes, and when we won for The English Patient, we were the very, very lucky assholes.”
This year, as ever, there are Best Picture favorites: Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, on the hunt for Osama bin Laden; Argo, Ben Affleck’s Iranian-hostage rescue thriller; and Steven Spielberg’s biopic of Lincoln. Popular opinion is currently split as to which of them is most likely to win.
But look hard at the history, and the Best Picture winner isn’t quite as random as it seems. Which is where it comes down to people like Mother Dolores. The opinion of the devout lady -- who was formerly known as actress Dolores Hart and played opposite Elvis in 1958’s King Creole -- deserves to be taken seriously. One becomes a member of AMPAS in one of three ways: receiving an Oscar nomination; applying for membership with two other members vouching for your work; or being endorsed for merit by the Academy itself.
It takes years of work -- and perhaps more importantly, years of networking -- to attain any one of these membership requirements. This creates something of a barrier to young film industry talent, and that is reflected in the demographics of the Academy.
According to a report in the Los Angeles Times that roiled progressive, “kumbaya,” affirmative-action liberal Hollywood, the average age of Academy members is 62, with only 14 percent of them under 50; 94 percent are Caucasian and 77 percent are male. This, then, leads us to the first factor when it comes to winning Best Picture.
Appeal to the old white guys
We shouldn’t be surprised when a basic theme shows up again and again in the Best Picture: the story of a man, usually white, as a rule a staunch individualist, who stands firm against external pressures, learns something about himself and ends victorious, at least morally.
For example: Rocky, The Artist, Million Dollar Baby, A Beautiful Mind, Gladiator, The King’s Speech, Schindler’s List, Dances with Wolves, Braveheart, American Beauty, Kramer vs. Kramer, The Hurt Locker, Platoon, Shakespeare in Love, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Forrest Gump, The Departed, etc., etc., etc.
Sometimes there’s a variation on the theme. In the cases of Slumdog Millionaire and Gandhi, the skin color changed. In The Silence of the Lambs and Titanic, it was the gender. But what would Clarice have been without her Hannibal? Rose without her Jack? In Amadeus and Rain Man, the basic theme was split between two men; in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King between a fellowship. In No Country for Old Men, the testosterone odyssey ends in bitter disaster.
So, inevitably, the journey to the Oscar begins with the “man goes his own way” basic formula. This bodes well this year for Lincoln and Argo; less so for Zero Dark Thirty, which features a female -- gasp! -- intelligence agent bucking the system in the hunt for bin Laden.
Other notable trends: Older members of the Academy aren’t too keen on brutality. (See Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture of 1998.) Nudity is another definite no-no. (Sorry, lesbian psycho-thriller Black Swan. It’s the nomination that counts, right?) As a rule, the winning picture usually has no viewing restrictions -- although as the exception that breaks the rule, Midnight Cowboy was rated “X” when it won Best Picture in 1969.
Yet for all the Academy’s conservatism, the films should not be reactionary either. After all, an average age of 62 means the members grew up in the flower-power era and began their careers in the 1970s, when Hollywood was producing the most daring and progressive films in its history. Enlightened, liberal, socially aware, but not too provocative. Gay cowboys are not on -- as Brokeback Mountain discovered when it lost to the hit-you-over-the-head-progressive attitude of Crash despite a Best Director win -- because there are still the “steak-eaters” to contend with, as the macho technicians and tradesmen who form a large group within the Academy’s membership are known.
As a rule, an Oscar film should take itself seriously, which is why comedies rarely have a chance. “It needs to be dramatic and weighty,” says Wolfgang Petersen, the first German to be nominated for Best Director since 1947, for Das Boot. He means “weighty” physically, too. But while epics lasting over two hours are Oscar favorites, it’s no guarantee of success, as the 100-minute lightweight film The Artist demonstrates. (Notable this year: Lincoln comes in at a bladder-bursting 150 minutes.)
Winning other awards pre-Oscars
Hollywood is, at its core, a union town. The Screen Actors Guild handles contracts for actors, while the Directors Guild of America, the Producers Guild of America and the Writers Guild of America handle the behind-the-scenes talent. It is estimated that almost one quarter of the Academy members are card-carrying actors, with another 15 percent made up of directors and producers. The results of the end-of-year awards for these individual guilds are a good indication of the mindset of the overall Academy.
In 2012, the little-film-that-could Oscar momentum for The Artist started with the guilds. SAG nominated the film for outstanding performance by a cast in a motion picture, the best correlation for the Best Picture award from the Academy. Bérénice Bejo was nominated for female performance in a supporting role, and Jean Dujardin won for male performance in a leading role.
Director Michel Hazanavicius won the DGA’s award for outstanding directorial achievement in motion pictures, and producer Thomas Langmann won the PGA’s motion picture producer of the year award. When awards season was said and done, The Artist received 10 Oscar nominations and won five, including Best Picture, Actor, and Director, as well as Costume Design and Score.
This year, SAG nominees for outstanding performance by a cast in a motion picture were: Argo, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Les Misérables, Lincoln, and Silver Linings Playbook.
It’s not for nothing that the Best Picture victors usually also win one acting Oscar. (That applies to 16 of the 25 pictures mentioned above.) “Strong acting performances strike a chord with people, so you can build a whole film around them,” says Robin Swicord, an Academy member who was nominated for an award for the screenplay for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The honorable CGI creatures in Avatar never had a chance.
It’s not who you know, but the money you spend on who you know
Appealing to men and the unions still isn’t enough for the Best Picture win. This is where Oscar campaigning gets down and dirty: It takes a chunk of money, spent wisely and aggressively, to seal the deal. Anyone who wants to get their film nominated should be willing to cough up $2 million on average.
Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein has raised this third factor to an art form. Even his most dogged opponents have to concede that nobody mounts a better Oscar publicity campaign. Films made by Miramax -- the company he founded and used to work for -- have had 249 Oscar nominations and won 60 times in various categories, including three times for Best Picture. He has hit the jackpot in recent years with The King’s Speech and The Artist.
That is partly because he has a nose for the right films, but also because he is dogged in his attempts at winning over every voter. He calls the Academy members at home to ask if they have seen his films, and he spends plenty of money on mailing campaigns, ads, screenings, and parties. If Oscar voters are too old and infirm to head out to screenings, he makes sure they get DVDs at home. It is said he spent $15 million to help Shakespeare in Love sneak past Saving Private Ryan for the ultimate Oscar glory. (And when one of Weinstein’s films wins, he rewards his loyal voters well with one of the most sought after, extravagant post-Oscar parties in town.)
If you haven’t got Weinstein on your team, you can still learn from his aggressive tactics, as the producers of the relatively low-grossing The Hurt Locker did in their successful David-and-Goliath campaign against the hugely popular Avatar. Producer Nicolas Chartier ran afoul of Academy rules forbidding derogatory communications during awards season by penning emails imploring voters to vote for Locker instead of the “$500 million film.” He was barred from the ceremony, and so wasn’t able to see his picture win the top prize -- or to see director Bigelow besting ex-husband James Cameron in the directing category.
There are those who turn their noses up at this. “The Oscars are to be won purely on the basis of popularity,” says veteran Mike Medavoy, who was studio manager for films like Rocky and The Silence of the Lambs and has been nominated as producer for Best Picture three times.
“It’s a real election campaign where you even get to kiss babies. I felt dirty afterward,” George Clooney has complained. Perhaps not too dirty; he’s a frequent presence on the awards scene, having been nominated five times and winning Best Supporting Actor for Syriana (2005).
But for the Best Picture winners it’s worth it. A nomination increases box office earnings by, on average, 22.2 percent. If your film wins, these tend to go up by a further 15.3 percent. Last year’s winner, The Artist, saw its week-over-week box-office tally increase by 34 percent after its victory.
The only question is whether that is reward enough. The Oscar doesn’t hold its sheen for long, both in terms of career -- many actor Oscar winners never repeat their peak achievement -- and literally. “They’re just sitting there gathering dust,” Meryl Streep says of her three statuettes. “I had to pack mine away to stop the sea air corroding it,” Halle Berry remembers.
The only person to have found an exciting use for his is Dustin Hoffman. “I take both my Oscars to bed with me every night,” he says. “I hold them, kiss them, make love to them, which is allowed, because they don’t have a penis. And my wife doesn’t mind.”
He is, it is fair to say, an old white guy.
Check out the March 2013 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands February 12) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app.