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Thrown from her own horse?

Jane Sindell got 'Seabiscuit' to the starting gate, but an awards rule knocks her out of the race.

January 30, 2004|Elaine Dutka | Times Staff Writer

Jane Sindell woke up Tuesday morning to a congratulatory phone message from Ron Meyer, president and chief operating officer of Vivendi Universal Entertainment. The studio's "Seabiscuit," on which she was a producer, had landed a best picture Oscar nomination.

Before day's end, however, it became a good-news/bad-news scenario. The rules of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences limit the number of producers who can receive the statuette to three, and "Seabiscuit" has four. A couple of phone calls and faxes later, Sindell was odd woman out.

It was disappointing, concedes the former head of the Creative Artists Agency literary department, but it came as no surprise. As director Gary Ross' former partner in Larger Than Life Productions, Sindell had initiated the acquisition of Laura Hillenbrand's bestseller. But, unlike Ross, Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, she hadn't been involved in the actual shooting of the film.

The other "Seabiscuit" producers inhabited the movie for 18 months, she noted, and deserve the credit. She added that last summer she voluntarily withdrew from the Producers Guild because she didn't meet the criteria.

Tuesday's events "merely formalized something we'd decided before," said Sindell, who left the company in 2001 to pursue her own projects. "I got a call from a Universal executive, telling me -- and the others -- to expect a fax from the academy in which I'd be asked to sign off. In terms of my nascent producing career, though, I still feel I'm 1 for 1."

Ross also wishes things had played out differently. Sindell was his longtime agent at Creative Artists Agency and the two remain close friends. "I love Jane and will always be indebted to her for finding the material," he says. "Though I'd love to have four names read from the podium, we have to abide by the academy rule."

That rule was instituted in 1999, in response to the horde of producers trooping up to the stage that year to accept Oscars for "Shakespeare in Love." ("It had been in the idea stage, but that broke the camel's back," says the academy's director of communications, John Pavlik.) Since then, recipients must be people who have "performed the major portion of the producing function" -- earned, rather than awarded to the head of the production company or the girlfriend or boyfriend of the star.

For Oscar qualification, studios have to provide the academy with credits 60 days after the film's release or Dec. 1, whichever comes later. In 2002, after arbitration by the academy's producers branch, one of four listed producers on the first "Lord of the Rings" picture was eliminated from the mix.

A "communication problem" resulted in actress Sigourney Weaver's announcement at the pre-dawn nominations telecast that "Seabiscuit's" producers were "to be determined," said Bruce Davison, executive director of the academy. If the issue had already been decided, as the producers said, the academy wasn't notified.

"We breathed a sigh of relief that the 'Seabiscuit' producers made the decision on their own," he said. " 'Cold Mountain' and 'Last Samurai' also had four producers, and we were prepared for the possibility of a number of arbitration sessions. There's no use deciding those things in advance because the process can be agonizing. And we didn't want to play into the hands of studios who, in the past, positioned their movies as best picture nominees by asking for an early determination. Unfortunately, the Producers Guild -- unlike the Directors and Writers Guilds -- aren't yet contractually allowed to "make that decision."

People have received producer credits for doing a lot less than Sindell, observed Mark Johnson, chair of the producers branch of the academy. "On 'Quiz Show,' there were 13 producers," he recalled. "Director Barry Levinson and I stepped down, hoping that people whose projects had been folded into ours or had never even met [director] Robert Redford would follow suit. None did.

"The academy rule is a good one because the credit was being watered down," Johnson added. "Had Sindell not found the material there would be no movie to produce -- but it's about who leaves their imprint on the film."

She and Ross remain good friends, Sindell confirmed, despite their parting of ways. "It was like dating someone for a long time, living together and getting married," she said. "The next day, you wake up and say, 'What did we do? It was so good before.' In the end, we had different working styles. As for 'Seabiscuit,' I'm crossing my fingers for all of us -- I'm incredibly proud of the film."

The "to be determined" aspect of the Oscar announcement didn't detract from the moment, maintained Eddie Egan, co-president of marketing for Universal Pictures, the film's distributor.

"That took a back seat to our ozone of happiness at hearing 'Seabiscuit' called out," he says.

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