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OSCAR COUNTDOWN | THE BIG PICTURE / PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

The unkindest cut

If it weren't for these two producers, there wouldn't be a `Sunshine.' Tell it to the academy.

February 20, 2007|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

IF "Little Miss Sunshine" wins the Oscar for best picture, it will represent a phenomenal underdog victory for a raucous road-trip comedy that cost barely $7 million to make, was turned down by studios everywhere and was directed by a husband-and-wife team who'd never made a feature before.

But for the film academy, a "Little Miss Sunshine" victory will be a huge public-relations embarrassment. Thanks to a misguided rule instituted to rein in credit inflation, if the film wins on Sunday only some of the film's five producers will be allowed on stage to accept the award. This comes despite the fact that the producers' own peer group, the Producers Guild of America, awarded credit to all five of the film's producers.

Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger, who've been a producing team for nearly 15 years, are the "Sunshine" producers in line to get the royal shaft, all because the academy has instituted a wildly arbitrary rule saying a film can only have three legitimate producers.

There have been other producer disputes, notably a decision last year that kept "Crash" producer Bob Yari from accepting the best picture award for "Crash." But what makes this year's academy ruling so infuriating is that it slights two producers who are poster boys for their profession, known in the independent film community as honest, hard-working, low-ego guys devoted to making the kind of movies the academy often wishes it had more of.

The decision is so unpopular that a number of top producers are speaking out about it, even at the risk of damaging their relations with the academy. "Ron and Albert are distinguished producers with a nose for good material at a time when finding good material should be honored," says "World Trade Center" producer Michael Shamberg, who also produced the Oscar-nominated "Erin Brockovich." "If the academy is going to discriminate against such established producers, it's time to fix the rules."

Even Mark Johnson, who won an Oscar for producing "Rain Man" and is one of three members of the academy's producers branch on the academy's board of governors, is upset. "I'm sick about the situation," he says. "It's patently unfair. There are a number of us who want to address some sort of new procedure that accurately weeds out non-producers but still recognizes the true producers, no matter how many there may be."

A producing team since 1993, Berger and Yerxa have made films with a number of gifted directors, notably Alexander Payne ("Election"), Anthony Minghella ("Cold Mountain") and Steven Soderbergh ("King of the Hill"). This Oscar season should have been a time of exultation for the duo, since they were also producers of "Little Children," a highly praised film by Todd Field.

When I phoned them Thursday, they refused to discuss the academy's ruling, saying they didn't want to do anything to hurt the film in the run-up to the awards. But on a public panel a few weeks ago at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, they made it clear they deserved as much credit as any of their "Sunshine" colleagues. As Berger put it: "No matter what the academy decided, we produced this movie."

What's especially galling about the academy's decision is that it's more about image management than the complicated reality of producing movies today. It's no secret that many academy members were appalled in 1999 when Harvey Weinstein took a producer's credit for "Shakespeare in Love," which ended up winning best picture, leading to a scrum of producers crowding the stage, all fighting for the microphone.

The consensus was that Weinstein, then head of Miramax, had overstepped his bounds, giving himself a producer credit for doing what was already his job -- greenlighting a film. The Producers Guild, already stung by a stream of stories about films populated with enough producers to field a couple of football teams, came up with a specific formula for deciding how much a producer contributed to a film. Each part of the process was given a specific weight: 30% for developing the film, 20% for being involved in pre-production, 20% for work during production and 30% for participating in post-production and marketing.

The guild assembled a three-person arbitration committee to make credit decisions after taking statements from a film's producers as well as third-party verifications from film crew department heads. It was this committee that awarded credit to all five producers of "Sunshine" and advised the academy to do the same.

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