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Universal finds itself scrambling for an Oscar nomination, saying political pundits obscured the film's quality.

January 23, 2006|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

CAN a movie be Swift-boated?

That's what the makers of "Munich," one of the year's most provocative titles, are asking themselves as the Steven Spielberg film struggles to find firm footing in a fast-moving Oscar race. Despite mostly good reviews, a handful of award nominations, and the cachet of one of the town's top directors, the film, Spielberg's historical narrative about an Israeli Mossad team hunting down the Palestinian perpetrators of the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre, finds itself jostling madly for one of the best picture Oscar berths, with hopes that the all-important Oscar nominations will shore up its, so far, middling box office.

"Unfortunately, the political pundits who took swipes at the movie very early on set the course for the movie that's been difficult to overcome," says producer Kathleen Kennedy. "That was set by people who hadn't seen the movie, speculating what the movie was. That's been frustrating. We always knew, given this subject matter, there were going to be people who were not going to be open to a discussion. Unfortunately, they've found a louder voice than the people who've supported the movie.

"We live in a time where there is a very loud and strong right-wing constituency that is hellbent on suppressing any of this kind of dialogue. I've just been surprised at Hollywood and our own industry. It reveals more conservatism than I thought was there."

Stacey Snider, head of Universal Pictures, seems more unsure about the effect of the pundits. "I really don't know. I don't know if that generates curiosity or hardens perspective. We made [the movie] to be debated and questioned and expected strong points of view. The movie wouldn't be creatively and artistically successful if it went down easy."

A number of marketing specialists -- all of whom declined to be named because Spielberg remains one of Hollywood's sacred cows -- scoff at the notion that Joe Blow moviegoer cares what Leon Wieseltier thinks. Instead, they wonder if Universal blundered by selling the film as an important, thought-provoking event rather than a pulse-pounding thriller. The trailers and the poster all stress the lead character's moral quandary. In the poster, Avner sits heavy-hearted with a gun in his hand, which some wags have suggested looks like he's contemplating suicide.

As several marketeers have suggested, a more commercially effective strategy might have been to sell "Munich" like a topical "All the President's Men"-style thriller, or even a simple revenge tale, using the title of the George Jonas tome on which "Munich" is based: "Vengeance." That tack, however simplistic, might have found more immediate resonance among moviegoers in this post-Sept. 11 world. Even though a raft of critics have pointed out that "Munich" works as a nifty action pic, the blowback from the political fracas has increased the sensation that the film is more medicinal than fun.

Snider, whose team has worked closely with Spielberg and Kennedy, says they opted to sell "Munich" in the fashion that was closest to the spirit of the movie, adding, "I would have felt bad as an executive and a citizen" to hawk the film in a "blatantly exploitative and commercial way, especially when so much is at stake and people hold such strong feelings about the subject matter."

Still, the team does seem rattled by some of the logistical snafus that has dogged them it.

After completing "War of the Worlds" in early summer, Spielberg raced to shoot and edit "Munich." As one Universal operative pointed out, the film was only available to show the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. on Dec. 7, the last possible day before they voted on the Golden Globe nominations. About half of the 86-member association showed up, and there were no DVDs available to show those who missed the presentation. (Although the film didn't make it into the best drama category, both Spielberg and screenwriters Eric Roth and Tony Kushner received nominations.) A similar snafu beset the BAFTAs, Britain's version of the Oscars, which shut out "Munich." The film hasn't yet opened in Britain, and the "Munich" DVDs were inadvertently made to play on U.S. machines, not European ones, meaning that many British Academy of Film and Television Arts members never saw it.

Hollywood in their sights

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