For those who think that Oscar ballots are filled out in eeny-meeny-miny-mo fashion, think again. Academy voters say a great deal of time and thought goes into their votes. The U.S. electorate should take its duty so seriously.
The Times spoke to a dozen of the nearly 5,000 voting members of the academy from the various industry branches: director Tony Scott, actors Barbara Hershey and John Lithgow, producers Doug Chapin and Laurence Mark, publicity executive Claudia Gray, costume designers Ellen Mirojnick and Marilyn Vance, special-effects creator Dennis Muren, writer-producer Nancy Myers, production designer Laurence Paull and former academy President Fay Kanin, an active writer-producer and academy member for more than 40 years.
Oscar ballots are cast in a similar fashion to the way sports competitions are judged, with factors such as degree of difficulty, success and style of execution and home-team advantage taken into consideration.
Since the technical aspects of filmmaking are more widely discussed today, academy voters tend to be better informed about areas outside their particular specialty. In some cases, studios sometimes send out specially made videos explaining the nominee's technical contributions to further educate voters.
That's in addition to videocassette copies of virtually every nominated film (excluding foreign entries, shorts and documentaries). So current academy voters are likely to have seen at least four of the five nominees in each category before casting their final ballot. And unless they have, they say, they usually don't vote in that particular category.
HYPE AND GLORY
Some voters ignore the Oscar season ad blitz in trade and consumer publications, believing that they'll be unduly influenced, while others find them beneficial as a refresher course, "especially to jog my memory about films that opened early in the year," says Gray, Gramercy Pictures' executive vice president of publicity.
Particularly helpful are screening calendars in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, daily reminders for academy members to catch up on films they might have been too busy to see in first run.
Voters also tend to ignore other media hype. Extensive newspaper review quote ads send Scott ("Top Gun") running from the room. "I'm very wary of them, he says. "They seem to negate one another." Hershey ("A World Apart") agrees: "You can only hear the word genius thrown around so many times before it loses its meaning."
But 10-best lists and other year-end critical kudos do have some impact. "If two or three movies that I missed are mentioned on several lists, I make a real effort to see them," says Lithgow, a two-time supporting actor nominee ("The World According to Garp" and "Terms of Endearment").
"I pay attention to the more serious critics groups," says Myers ("Father of the Bride"). "They raise my awareness." She cites this year's cinematography awards by several critical organizations to Stefan Czapsky for "Ed Wood." "It made me think about his work more, though I don't think it influenced me one way or the other." ("Ed Wood" is not among Oscar's five final cinematography nominees.)
Also, motion picture guilds and unions (Directors Guild, Writers Guild and so forth) annually select their own favorites, and several members factor those choices into their voting equation. "I take a cue from the editors because I think they know more about it than I do," says Mark ("Working Girl").
But Paull ("Blade Runner") tends to discount those plaudits. "It's great that they honor their own," he says, "but they're basically a network with their own viewpoint and agenda. It's important to take a more objective look at the work."
BIG SCREEN VS. LITTLE SCREEN
Videocassettes of nominated films are both a boon and a bane to academy voters. Kanin, a onetime screenplay nominee ("Teacher's Pet") who was president of the academy from 1979 to 1982, is more of a purist about the experience.
"I want to see films on the big screen," she says. "That's what they were designed for. The academy has screenings in its theater every week. At Oscar time, every nominated film is screened twice. Anyone who really wants to see the films (in a theater) has very little excuse not to."
But for many active members of the academy, seeing the film on video is better than not seeing it at all. Many view at least 50% of the nominated films only on cassette. And if they're busy working, sometimes even more.
The experience is a mixed bag, they say. Says Mirojnick ("Showgirls"): "Some films have been designed to be viewed only on the large screen. Others translate to the small screen just fine. I've started watching some films on video, pulled them out of the machine and gone right out to the theater."
"It's very imbalanced," Scott says, "because not everyone has the same equipment quality at home." But if it's a performance film, he says, it suffers less than a large-scale action film.