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Drama at the Oscars

LOS ANGELES - Leave it to Oscar to pile on the drama.

For starters, you have ex-spouses and competing directors vying for the same short metal trophy. Then there's the David and Goliath thing as the biggest film of all time squares off against one of the most obscure for best picture. Oh, and the voting rules have changed, along with the number of contestants.

Don't feel bad if you can't recall all 10 movies in line for best picture at Sunday night's Academy Awards. This season, Oscar looks nothing like his old self. That's the point.

You'll have two hosts (Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin), a showdown between former husband and wife (James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow, who actually get along quite well), and the most movies competing for the top prize since the Academy let 12 horses on the field for films made in 1934 and 1935.

Few dispute the makeover - not to mention having the highest-grossing film of all time in Avatar as a multiple nominee - should give the telecast a ratings boost. And nine movies can brag on the DVD box that they were contenders.

Beyond that? That's where industry executives and analysts differ. Supporters of the top-10 format say change was long overdue for an aging voting bloc not known for its love of movies that paying customers like.

"It was time for a shake-up," says Sasha Stone, Oscar analyst for AwardsDaily.com. "If you can nominate The Blind Side, the most populist movie of the year, as one of your best pictures, you're doing something right. I'd give them an A-plus."

Anne Thompson of the blog Thompson on Hollywood would give a harsher grade.

"I used to think a new system was a good idea, that they're bringing attention to popular and big-budget movies," she says.

"Now I'm not so sure. The campaigning has gotten ugly, the voting is confusing, and I haven't seen any evidence yet that it's helping the movies it's supposed to be recognizing."

The debate is all music to Tom Sherak, president of the academy.

"Some people are going to agree with changes, some people aren't, that's just the way it is," he says. "But look at what's happening. The movies, which belong to the people anyway, are relevant again. That's what we've needed. People talking about the movies."

Brutal campaigns

Talking is an understatement. By opening the field to 10, the academy unleashed twice as many lobbyists needing half as many votes to win.

It has turned the race vitriolic. As happens every year, the best-picture race narrows to a fraction of likely winners. This year, it's Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds and Up in the Air.

That has created a three-way catfight that only Up in the Air has managed to avoid. Shortly after voting began, executives at Fox, which released Avatar, complained to some outlets that, in an ironic twist, Cameron and his $300 million film were getting snubbed by the media.

Some conceded to breaking campaign rules. Nicolas Chartier, one of The Hurt Locker's four producers, was banned from the Oscar show after admitting he sent e-mails to academy members urging them to vote for his $15 million Locker, not "that $500 million film," a jab at Avatar.

Harvey Weinstein, co-head of The Weinstein Co. and a perennial headline during Oscar campaigns, also came under fire from critics accusing him of dirty pool.

Days before Oscar voting closed for the academy, the Los Angeles Times ran a story quoting Iraq war veterans who called The Hurt Locker inaccurate and disrespectful of the military. On the film website Movieline.com, columnist S.T. Vanairsdale accused Weinstein of planting the story to boost the chances of his Inglourious Basterds. The film is emerging as a spoiler.

"I'm not about to second-guess anyone in Iraq," Vanairsdale writes. "But I'll totally second-guess the editors who seem to have left the 'Additional reporting by Harvey Weinstein in Baghdad' credit off this story. Seriously: Why is this just coming out now?"

Chartier and Weinstein declined to comment.

"The biggest fear was that the race was going to be distorted by campaigning," says Sharon Waxman, author of Rebels on the Backlot and creator of the film site TheWrap.com.

"I don't think we've seen anything that you could say is corrupting the Oscars," she says. "But studios are going to take their shots at each other for an Oscar - even if there are 10 (nominees), which you'd think dilutes the value of the award."

Not so, says Ronald Jacobi, who was Sony Pictures vice president for 17 years before becoming a consultant in 2001. He says the award changes were primarily "for ratings and commercial interests, but it's still the Academy Awards. Everybody wants one. You walk into the boardroom of any studio and you'll see a showcase of Oscars."

What should be of greater concern to studios, Jacobi says, is the new voting system, which conceivably could award the top prize to a movie that didn't tally the most first-place votes. If they bother to read the new rules.

Under the new preferential system, voters rank their best-picture choices from 1 to 10. A film that earns more second- and third-place votes could upend the movie that got the most top votes.

Members still vote the old-fashioned way - pick a single winner in each category - for every other race.

"It will be interesting to see if voters really do consider all the movies," Jacobi says. "Everyone I talk with seems to be ignoring all but the top three or four front-runners, like they do every year."

Past experiments

Despite his reputation as a stick-in-the-mud, Oscar has broken with tradition before.

For three years during World War II, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences went to plaster statuettes to save metal. It allowed write-in votes in 1935 to appease actors who were furious that Bette Davis (Of Human Bondage) and Myrna Loy (The Thin Man) weren't nominated.

And the academy has tinkered with the number of best-picture nominees for years. The first Oscars, held in the Blossom Room of the Roosevelt Hotel in 1929, had three nominees. In the 1935 and 1936 ceremonies, there were a dozen candidates. Then there were 10. It wasn't until 1945 that the academy settled on five.

So why 10 movies? "It's funny: We talked about different numbers," Sherak says. "Some suggested we have eight movies. But I figured, if you've got 350 critics around the country who can come up with the 10 best movies, so can we."

Doubling the field pleasantly surprised big-studio executives who were used to their comedies and blockbusters being ignored come fall. Of course, the snub stings more when a movie close to you can't make the top 10.

The omission of Star Trek, for instance, stunned Paramount officials, who considered it stronger than Sony's sci-fi District 9.

Rob Moore, co-chairman of Paramount, which released Star Trek, treads carefully in his assessment of the experiment.

"Ultimately it worked out the way (the academy) wanted," he says. "A broad range of movies got nominated. That certainly can only help the movies selected for this attention."

None has had more attention (at least last year) than Avatar, which probably would have spiked ratings all by its computer-generated self. Historically, Oscar telecasts that recognize big movies get big ratings. In 1998, 55 million viewers tuned in to see Titanic sweep the awards, the largest television audience ever for the Academy Awards.

In 2004, when The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King ruled the show, it drew 44 million viewers.

With Avatar grossing $706 million and counting, "the show really didn't need any help," says Tom O'Neil, head of the awards site TheEnvelope.com. "People watch when they have a movie to root for."

There was no shortage of passion this year, Thompson says. "I don't think I've ever seen an Oscar season get so intense and go so late into the season. One thing you've got to give the academy is that all the old tea leaves we used to predict a winner are out the window.

"Really, anyone could win. There's real drama in this race."


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