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THE OSCARS

Academy Voters Feel the Heat of Campaign Fever

Casting award ballots can be a subjective, haphazard and frazzled process, with this year's stepped-up studio publicity wars adding to the pressure.

March 23, 2002|ROBERT WELKOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jack Smight is a man under siege.

The 75-year-old retired director sighs as he displays the stacks of 62 movies on tape and DVD that arrived steadily for weeks on the doorstep of his Valencia home.

In another room, he points to the shelves near his stereo system that are now lined with free movie soundtracks shipped by anxious studios. And, if that weren't enough, screenplays for films like "A Beautiful Mind," "In the Bedroom" and "Gosford Park" have dropped into his mailbox with generous regularity.

"Pretty soon, they all meld into one," the soft-spoken director of the 1966 Paul Newman film "Harper" says with frustration. "I love films, but to have to sit down every night and look at one or two and make notes, it's not always a pleasant situation."

But wade through them he must, for Smight is an Oscar voter.

This year, more than ever, Hollywood studios have waged multimillion-dollar ad campaigns and sent nominees fanning out on the publicity circuit to woo the 5,739 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Somewhat overwhelmed but dutiful, the voters, who are less frequently heard from, have quietly gone about their time-consuming and often thankless task of selecting the winners who will be announced Sunday at the 74th Academy Awards.

Toss out any notion that this is an objective, well-oiled process. The academy itself concedes that studios have bent some of the rules to flog their films.

Screenwriter and director Dale Launer, whose writing credits include "My Cousin Vinny," said he takes his Oscar voting as seriously as the next person, but he admits he won't spend more than a couple of minutes watching a movie on his VCR if he thinks it's a stinker.

"Sometimes you get something in," Launer said, "and it's for best picture consideration and you just say something like, 'Yeah, in your dreams!'"

Cinematographer John Hora, whose credits include "Gremlins," won't vote on any category for which he doesn't see a majority of movies with nominations.

This year, he said, he voted for the one category he felt most comfortable about--best cinematography--leaving blank everything else on his final ballot, including the best picture category with nominees "A Beautiful Mind," "In the Bedroom," "Gosford Park," "Moulin Rouge" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring."

"I've seen 'Moulin Rouge' three times, but I always fall asleep," Hora said. "I saw 'Lord of the Rings' both [in the theater and on DVD]. I liked the first hour, and then I don't care for it much. The effects looked better on DVD."

The truth is, voting for the Academy Awards is a highly subjective, sometimes haphazard and occasionally frazzled process.

In interviews with a small cross-section of Oscar voters, they complained that they often lack the expertise to vote in categories outside their professions.

Many are so busy making a living in a business in which 18-hour days are common that they don't have time to watch all the movies. And they often end up voting as much with their hearts as with their minds, influenced, they admit, by friendships and industry buzz but not by the screaming four-color advertisements that incessantly target them.

In its own way, the Oscar voting process is as confusing as a Palm Beach County butterfly ballot.

During the nominating process, the academy's actors branch votes on the acting categories, the directors branch on the directors, the writers on the writers and so on. The five best picture nominees are selected by the entire voting membership.

The final ballots are then mailed to all voting members, who this year were required to return them no later than 5 p.m. Tuesday so that PricewaterhouseCoopers could begin tabulating them. When it comes to the final ballot, members vote in all categories, except for foreign-language film, documentaries and short films (in those categories voters cast ballots only after seeing an official screening).

The academy does try to give Oscar voters a little guidance. When they first become academy members, they receive a pamphlet that includes tips from experts on judging various categories. Each year, the academy also slips a note in with the final ballot telling voters that it's OK to leave some categories blank if they prefer.

For people not skilled in a craft, the technical categories can cause them to throw up their hands. How does one judge best sound? Or best editing? Or best musical score? In many ways, the voters aren't so different from the average, passionate but less than fully schooled member of the audience.

Hairstylist Barbara Lorenz, who recently worked on the sci-fi film "The Time Machine," faced that problem when she watched "Memento," director Christopher Nolan's quirky murder mystery told backward. The film is up for best editing and best original screenplay.

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