There are many roads to Oscar. But perhaps the surest ones lead through the offices of two moviemakers responsible for 31 of this year's Academy Award nominations, including those of the two best picture front-runners, "The King's Speech" and "The Social Network."
With brash personalities and refined tastes in film, producer Scott Rudin and studio head Harvey Weinstein represent an endangered species in an increasingly buttoned-up, corporate Hollywood. In a cinematic era in which studio films are driven by superheroes and sequels, they champion ostensibly uncommercial movies — about an awkward king who stutters and a jerky kid who starts a website — and, through a mixture of strategy and alpha behavior, fight to win them audiences and Oscars.
Both are expert at the business of collecting little gold men. Over the last two decades, Weinstein's movies have earned 287 Academy Award nominations and 63 wins while Rudin's have notched 104 nominations and 13 wins. With the Academy Awards four weeks away, these Oscar rainmakers are launching the final salvos in their campaigns.
Rudin and Weinstein aren't friends — and have butted heads on previous projects — but they share a grudging respect for each other's work and an awful lot in common. Both native New Yorkers from Jewish families — Rudin, 52, grew up on Long Island and Weinstein, 58, in Queens — the two keep their offices 3,000 miles from Hollywood on the island of Manhattan, Rudin in midtown and Weinstein in Tribeca. Both men are prone to leaving voice mails and e-mails for their colleagues at 5 a.m. and are known for abrasive managerial styles. Rudin devours more scripts on the weekends than the rest of his nine-person staff combined, and Weinstein brokers deals at Sundance in the middle of the night. Both men also work outside of movies — each has seven Tony Awards for theater productions, and each has dabbled in television. Both have beards and fluctuating waistlines.
"Really, they're the same person," says Donna Gigliotti, a producer who worked with both Weinstein and Rudin on a tense production of "The Reader" and is now the Weinstein Co.'s head of production. "They're both incredibly smart, committed to telling interesting stories and I don't think either of them ever sleeps."
On Tuesday, Weinstein's "The King's Speech" collected the most Oscar nominations, 12, and his "Blue Valentine" one. Rudin's "The Social Network" netted eight nods and "True Grit" 10, making him the first producer since 1974 to earn two best picture nominations in one year.
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin recalls flying to New York in 2009 with his first draft of "The Social Network" for a meeting with Rudin. The producer had hired Sorkin in 2008 after seeing Sorkin's short-lived Broadway play, "The Farnsworth Invention," about the first days of television. In Rudin's mind, that made Sorkin a great choice to write about the first days of Facebook, even though Sorkin had little knowledge of the website. Sitting in the conference room of Rudin's modern, theater district offices, "we'd do what he calls 'turning pages,'" says Sorkin, who is nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay. "We went through the whole thing page by page, line by line. I'd go back to my hotel and I'd polish it and by the end of the week we delivered it to the studio. He was the first person to make the script better."
As "The Social Network" progressed through production and into theaters, controversy erupted over the film's truthfulness. Rudin shielded Sorkin and director David Fincher and kept their focus on their creative work, while he juggled the competing interests of the studio's marketing department, its legal team and the objections by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, according to Amy Pascal, co-chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment, which is distributing the movie.
"He looks at every ad, he looks at every quote, he looks at every clip, he looks at every daily. He looks at every bit of film. He's involved in every single detail of every film that has to do with him," says Pascal. "And he does it from the vantage point of a producer, meaning he has to get it done by the force of his will."
Weinstein can be similarly hands-on. At about the same time Rudin and Sorkin were powering through Sorkin's script, director Tom Hooper, who had mainly worked in television, and 73-year-old screenwriter David Seidler, whose immediately previous credit was the TV film "Kung Fu Killer," were in London, despairing of finding a backer for their proposed movie about British King George VI's effort to overcome a debilitating stammer with the help of an eccentric speech therapist. Despite its offbeat premise — or perhaps because of it — Weinstein embraced the film.
"The creation of this awkward man into the king of England in a time of war fascinated me," says Weinstein. "The friendship of the two unlikely participants transformed a nation in a time of need. It was big storytelling with a small human interest."