Sunday, February 21, 2010

Oscar Campaign: The Weinsteins, LA Times and Oscar voting shenanigans

I wrote earlier about how the ridiculous smear campaign against Jason Reitman likely originated from the Weinstein brothers, Harvey and Bob, beginning with an article by Steven Zeitchik in the LA Times "Screenwriting credits, floating up in the air." Now a flurry of articles have appeared in that same paper that are touting the Weinstein Company’s contender Inglourious Basterds as a sure bet to be a surprise Best Picture winner at the Oscars (Beware: Here comes an 'Inglourious' upset at the Oscars) ('Basterds' comes roaring into final stretch) (Pundits pipe in: 'Yes, "Inglourious Basterds" can pull off an Oscar upset'; 'No, "Basterds" will not win best picture') (More pundits dish: Can 'Inglourious Basterds' pull off an Oscar upset for best picture?) There have also been glowing posts flooding comment boards at the and others that allow them like by essentially anonymous sources.  They claim that Inglourious Basterds is a cinematic masterpiece, by far the best work by the “genius” Tarantino. Fortunately, the sanity of LA Times’ Patrick Goldstein provides a more thoughtful balance to the sudden burst of unwarranted and excessive enthusiasm for Basterds (Can Harvey really pull off an 'Inglourious Basterds' victory?).

All this crowing is nonsense, of course. Inglourious Basterds is a middling film by a talented but highly derivative filmmaker. The Weinsteins' only hope of getting the Academy members to warm up to it is to create the impression that it is overwhelmingly popular and respected, and that voters should just go along with the consensus. Hence, their bluster and arrogant overconfidence. They use the victory by Inglourious Basterds at the SAG (Screen Actors Guild) Awards for Best Ensemble on January 23 to make their point. Crash had a similar win at the SAG Awards which telegraphed their surprise win at the Oscars. But Crash won a ton of other awards too, while Basterds has very little else which they can boast.

The last time we heard this bravado from them though was just last year with The Reader. That too was a relatively weak Holocaust-themed film that didn’t get very far. They also pushed Gangs of New York as a sure-fire winner for Martin Scorsese even though it was the least respected of his nominated films, because he was supposedly "owed" an Oscar. The Academy saw through that.

Yes, they scored an upset win with Shakespeare in Love when they were working at Miramax, besting the favourite Saving Private Ryan. But I would argue that Shakespeare in Love was the better film, and that Saving Private Ryan wasn’t even the best of the World War II nominees that year – The Thin Red Line was. Saving Private Ryan had a flashy but mostly unnecessary and unrelated opening sequence that had nothing to do with rest of the predictable and mundane movie. On the other hand, Shakespeare in Love was just about perfect – smart, funny, well-made and outstanding in every regard. It would’ve been pretty much impossible to improve on it. It deserved to win, campaign or no.

Contrary to what many people think, Academy voters take their responsibilities seriously. Perhaps the Weinsteins can sway a few lazy voters, but it would only make a difference if it was in a close race. It is a close race, but between The Hurt Locker and Avatar. Whatever votes the Weinsteins scare up won’t make a difference.

Regarding the voters, Toronto Star critic Peter Howell has pointed in his article “Could new Oscar voting system skew results?” out that some voters are trying to weigh things in favour of their desired choice by not going along with the instructions to rank the Best Picture choices in order of preference. He calls this an attempt to “fix” the results. It’s nothing of the kind. What this is in fact, is a dopey lack of understanding about how preferential ballots work, and a surrendering of voting power.

The preferential voting approach is comparable to a leadership campaign for a political party, minus the jockeying between rounds. Those don’t just have a single vote, with the winner being whoever has the most votes. If that were the case, then Hillary Clinton would have won the Democratic leadership race instead of Barack Obama, and Michael Ignatieff would have won the Liberal leadership race in Canada instead of Stephane Dion. But with run-offs, the winner is the first to reach a majority by gathering the votes of the candidates who are eliminated. The “I refuse to have a second or third choice” philosophy cannot possibly help your candidate. Imagine you had this approach and you supported either Obama, Clinton or John Edwards. How would a refusal to have back-up choices have helped your candidate? It wouldn’t have. For example, if supporters of Edwards held this belief and just withdrew after he was eliminated, it might have benefited Clinton, but it would have done absolutely nothing for Edwards.

So with the Oscar ballot, people who only vote for one candidate will not affect the results in favour of their choice as they believe. It only affects the results when their choice gets eliminated. Their ballot will be tossed and so can no longer have any say about the remaining candidates. If they had ranked their choices, it would still be apparent which of the remaining choices is their preferred choice.

By the way, I still encourage you and your friends to provide your ranking of the Best Picture nominees. I’ll tally the votes the same way the PriceWaterhouseCoopers accountants will do it. Plus I am offering a prize – a DVD from a 2010 Oscar-winning film will go to a randomly selected participant. Deadline will be the same as for the Academy: March 2 at 5pm.

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