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The Envelope: Behind the Screens

Producers weeded and, most likely, peeved

January 09, 2006|James Bates | Times Staff Writer

It's hard enough figuring out exactly what a producer does these days when everyone outside of the kid who bags your groceries claims to be one.

So it's no wonder people have trouble understanding what the Producers Guild of America does, let alone its place in the Milky Way-sized galaxy that is Hollywood's awards season.

This year, the answer gets a lot more interesting.

On Wednesday, the trade group announced five nominees for best theatrical motion picture ("Brokeback Mountain," "Crash," "Capote," "Walk the Line" and "Good Night, and Good Luck") along with a list of who it believes are the most worthy of the people claiming to have made the films.

In doing so, the guild revealed not only the people in the running for its own awards but, more important, which producers would make the cut come Oscar time should any of those films be nominated, as some -- if not most -- undoubtedly will be.

That's because the guild, which represents about 2,700 TV and film producers, this year has become something of a subcontractor to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in taking charge of the often-acrimonious debate over who gets credit for overseeing the making of nominated pictures.

Making the grade is important because it's the only way the phrase "Oscar-winning producer" will end up in your obituary should your film win. The executive producers, associate producers, co-producers and myriad other hybrids don't get to rush onstage to read an endless list of names of relatives, lawyers, agents and studio executives they need to kiss up to.

Now, only those who pass through the producers guild's filters get to do that.

Think of it as you would a bank officer who gives you a preapproved loan for your car purchase. In both cases, the idea is to be fair, but not irresponsibly generous, in extending the credit.

For the academy, the arrangement is a convenient way to play good cop and rid itself of a headache that has turned especially nasty in recent years.

One flashpoint came with complaints that ex-Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein muscled his way into the producer ranks of "Shakespeare in Love" so he could have his onstage moment when that film won the 1999 Oscar for best picture.

Then came last year's controversy with "The Aviator," when producer Charles Evans Jr. insisted that he had been unfairly aced out of the plaudits.

When the film was announced as an Oscar finalist, it was followed by an awkward mention that the credits were still being determined.

"The Aviator" failed to win the big one, but it did take home the best drama award at the Golden Globes. That led to an uncomfortable moment when Evans slipped past a security guard so he could appear in the winners' photo op, making the other producers livid.

For the guild, it means playing bad cop, which seems appropriate given that's what producers are often forced to do when making a film. But the organization has a bigger agenda in trying to rein in the proliferation of unearned producer credits on movies, which studios give away like freebies just to stroke egos.

"We want to protect the value of the job," said "Erin Brockovich" producer Stacey Sher.

So, since October, a group of volunteer producers, working two and three at a time, has quietly been evaluating 30 or so films that are likely awards contenders to decide who did the heaviest lifting in getting each of them made.

A three-page eligibility form divides about four dozen tasks into four categories (development, pre-production, physical production and post-production). Among the jobs of producer, as defined by the group, are selecting the director, securing initial financing, approving the weekly cost report and showing up on the set.

If that isn't complicated enough, development along with post-production work is weighted at 30% each, with pre-production and actual production weighted at 20% each.

The panel then circles "M" if it decides a producer had minimal responsibility, "S" for substantial responsibility and "F" for final responsibility. In the end, a producer has to prove responsibility for more than 50% of those functions.

As methodical as that is, it's already causing hard feelings.

"Crash" has six listed producers, but only two in the eyes of the guild. That isn't going over well with those who backed the film, with wealthy entrepreneur-turned-producer Bob Yari said to be especially irked that he's been left out (a call to his office was not returned).

The end result: If "Crash" scores a best picture Oscar nomination, the academy can blame the guild if any producers complain about being omitted from the category.

Executive director Vance Van Petten said he hopes the procedure won't be seen as diminishing contributions.

"We aren't saying that only two people on 'Crash' contributed to the film, nor that the others didn't make important contributions," Van Petten said.

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