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PATH TO THE OSCARS

Awful truth? Filmmaker is miffed

Michael Moore protests limited screenings of 'Winged Migration' and arcane rules in the documentary field.

March 17, 2003|John Clark | Special to The Times

It's Oscar time, the season of campaign hyperdrive in which movie makers seek the broadest possible exposure for their nominated films. So why are some people complaining that "Winged Migration," a critically praised, Academy Award-nominated French documentary, is hard to see?

The answer is wrapped up in the arcane and frequently contentious world of the documentary film category. The academy requires voters to prove they have seen all the nominated films in the category (unlike most other major categories, including best picture).

That means that missing one film disqualifies a voter from casting a ballot for any film in the relevant category. And if you're Michael Moore, that's a problem. Moore's Oscar-nominated film, "Bowling for Columbine," is one of the most popular documentaries ever made. But he's worried that the limited availability of "Winged Migration" actually will skew the odds in favor of the rival French film. He goes so far as to accuse the movie's distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, of deliberately withholding the film from screenings -- which Sony Classics denies.

The theory goes like this: If the pool of eligible voters -- those who have seen all the nominees -- is limited to hard-core documentary and foreign-film fans, their choices will tend to be classical, conservative, possibly esoteric or elitist, and likely not populist.

Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" is none of these things. It's less a traditional documentary than it is a polemic about America's gun culture. It might appeal to mainstream academy voters but could turn off documentary purists who prize objectivity, sobriety and a nonconfrontational approach to subjects. By this logic, limiting exposure to this group could hurt Moore's film and help "Winged Migration," a virtually narrative-free pictorial essay on migratory birds.

An Oscar win would also enhance the commercial prospects for "Winged Migration," which will not be released to theaters until April 18 in New York and May 2 in Los Angeles. Moore's film has been playing for months.

Of the more than 5,600 academy members, only 400 vote in the foreign-language category, even fewer for documentary, one industry veteran says. Balloting closes at 5 p.m. Tuesday.

The other three documentary nominees are "Daughter From Danang," "Prisoner of Paradise" and "Spellbound." Some of these films either don't have distributors or have not had significant theatrical releases, which means voters must see them at academy or distributor screenings. If they saw the films elsewhere, voters must declare where and when they saw them (in theatrical release, at festivals or at private screenings).

To level the playing field, the academy organizes five screenings of the documentaries in L.A., as well as screenings in New York, San Francisco and London (although not this year because of projection difficulties). The distributors will sometimes augment these screenings with their own, but it does them no good unless members see all the other films too. So they will take out print ads and send mailings to remind voters of academy screenings of all the films or even, as UA did this year, offer screening rooms to their competitors, who agree to provide a print -- unless they've decided not to screen their movie outside the academy venues.

That's what Sony Classics has done in this case, Moore claims. Moore says he asked Sony Classics' co-president, Michael Barker, to make a print available for extra screenings.

"He said no. He said in so many words that this is what's best for them."

"I told [Moore] I would vote for his film," counters Barker. "He said, 'Will you have one or two extra screenings?' I told him that people wouldn't come. We've had a lot of screenings. I've been doing this for 20 years. Every year, whoever the favorite is complains about not enough screenings."

Dennis O'Connor, vice president of marketing at United Artists, which is distributing "Bowling," agrees with Moore. "It really limits the number of people who can vote. Sony does it all the time."

Moore says he got suspicious when some academy voters complained to him that they'd been able to see all the movies in the category except "Winged Migration." There were academy screenings, of course, but Moore says these screenings, especially in New York, were insufficient. That's why he went to Barker.

"I told him we should all be supportive of each other's films," Moore says. "Especially in this category, which has a history of embarrassment" for overlooking popular films.

Moore says he took his case to academy officials in New York, who he said told him that they'd try to address the issue next year by scheduling more screenings. A New York academy representative, however, said Moore was told that it had nothing to do with the academy and that he should take it up with Sony Classics. The representative said there was no talk about extra screenings.

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