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Academy Gets Nominations Wrong — Again 

It's far more riveting to watch upheavals at SAG and Variety

Wednesday, Jan 28 2009
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Mutiny On The SAG Bounty: The brawling inside the Screen Actors Guild resulted in a knockout punch on January 26, when a mutinying “National Board Majority” — so described by anti-Membership First factions consisting of Unite For Strength members of the Hollywood division; the entire New York division except one member; and the Regional Branch division — finally succeeded in ousting National Executive Director and Chief Negotiator Doug Allen.

Replacing him are former SAG general counsel David White as interim national executive director, and longtime SAG senior adviser John McGuire as chief negotiator. The “National Board Majority” also disbanded the TV/Theatrical Negotiating Committee and replaced it with a task force directed to complete AMPTP negotiations on behalf of SAG’s board of directors.

Allen stalked off with nearly a half-million dollars, which was the payout on his contract. What will be the result? All strike talk has been averted, but that was the case even before this overthrow. And SAG will now content itself with exactly the same contract AFTRA negotiated with Big Media, plus a few bones for the feature-film side. I’ll have a complete wrap-up and analysis next week.

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Most Boring Oscars Ever?

Now that the Oscar nominations, SAG awards, and Producers Guild honors were announced, all that’s left is for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ 5,810 members to crown the front-runners on February 22. I know people love to endlessly speculate about who or what might win, but this year’s Oscars are totally suspenseless.

As far back as late December, my AMPAS voter gurus, who constantly talk to other Academy members, told me consensus was forming around Fox Searchlight’s Slumdog Millionaire for Best Picture. Now it’s a lock, along with Danny Boyle for Best Director, Kate Winslet in The Reader for Best Actress, and Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight for Best Supporting Actor.

That means the only real mystery surrounding the Oscars is the Best Actor category, which has come down to Sean Penn for Milk or Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler. And, of course, Best Supporting Actress, which is usually inexplicable.

Silly me, I’d hoped Academy members would throw some major-category nominations to the year’s more popular pics, so it wouldn’t be a repeat of last year’s Oscars, where mostly grim, little-seen films were rewarded and ratings were the worst since Nielsen started tracking them in 1974.

But, as usual, the Academy voters got it wrong. That they could ignore a Best Picture nod for The Dark Knight and a Best Director nomination for Chris Nolan, and show no love for Iron Man, which was a very satisfying film as well, demonstrates just how out-of-touch the mostly geriatric members who decide the Oscars really are.

Wall-E was robbed for Best Picture, too. It’s long overdue for an animated film to win that category. And overlooking Darren Aronofsky for Best Director and ignoring Bruce Springsteen’s swell song were absurd. And the voters blanked Clint Eastwood for Best Director (he’s won this category twice) and for Best Actor, despite the fact that he’s never taken home a statue in this category. I’d suspected that Gran Torino’s story, dialogue and message wouldn’t appeal to the Oscar elite because it’s too blue collar.

But, as I’ve said before, if you want to properly handicap the Oscars, just figure out who is envied most by the Academy voters. Sure, the geriatrics love Eastwood cuz he’s still got a prostate and balls. But Hollywood is also jealous of him because, if he wins any more Oscars, then the awards might as well be renamed the Clints. So the Academy pried the viewfinder from his liver-spotted hands and picked from younger directors to make that walk to the podium.

All those major category nods for The Reader also bewildered me. Its popularity with Oscar balloters was all about Harvey Weinstein — sympathy votes for Scott Rudin, Stephen Daldry and Kate Winslet for having to put up with that nasty oaf during the movie’s tortured postproduction and release, and for Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella for passing away before their time.

I was relieved to see that, unlike the Academy voters’ dis of Brokeback Mountain to win Best Picture after barely screening the pic because of its guy-on-guy action (albeit tame), the balloters were not scared off Milk. And that both Anne Hathaway and Mickey Rourke grabbed nods: The Academy could have blamed her for appearing in that crappy pic Bride Wars, and him for opening his mouth too much. (Less is more, Mickey ...)

I first received word on January 24 that chief marketing officer Madelyn Hammond had left Variety the day before. This was her second go-round at the trade after being associate publisher and rejoining the operation in December 2007. “I can’t believe they let her get away. This is the kind of shortsighted thinking that can sink businesses,” a major studio exec e-mailed me.

Then, the companywide cost-cutting at Reed Business (after it couldn’t sell itself) hit Variety even harder on January 26, with 30 layoffs on both the business and editorial sides, including some corporate and central resources who work across the division. The best-known included Mike Jones, Anne Thompson, Alys Marshall, Phil Gallo, Andrew Barker, Byron Perry, Lisa Weinstein, Martha Hernandez, Diane Garrett, Ben Fritz and Jeff Sneider.

I am curious about what happens to film critic John Anderson after he scandalously punched out publicist Jeff Dowd while covering Dirt! The Movie! for Variety at Sundance. It’s despicable that the trade’s lapdog reporters defended Anderson’s violent behavior just because he was flacked. More so if Variety keeps using him.

Meanwhile, Variety Group President and Publisher Neil Stiles is still reviewing what to do with Weekly Variety. He’s sure it will change both in terms of publishing date and content, as it needs updating, but there’s no decision yet. Nevertheless, a lot of insiders think it will disappear as a standalone and be folded into Daily Variety.

There’s an interesting back story behind the Variety cuts. I’ve confirmed that Jeff DeBalko, the president of the Reed Business Information (RBI-US) Business Media Division, as well as the company’s chief Internet officer, is feuding with Peter Bart. “Jeff fucking hates him,” one insider told me.

This isn’t a good enemy for Bart to have because DeBalko is the big kahuna, who, since 2006, has orchestrated the transition of RBI-US from a print-centric to a digital b-to-b publisher. And he’s been on a slash-and-burn campaign for two years. I hear DeBalko wants to shut down all the print publications and make the entire operation digital. And even though he has no direct oversight of the trade, DeBalko has been saying internally that he’ll be the first person to “bring Peter Bart and his prima donnas at Variety to heel.” Ouch!

Think that’s juicy? Here’s more: DeBalko is close to Broadcasting & Cable editor Ben Grossman (they golf together). Bart and Grossman hate each other because Grossman tried to poach Variety TV reporter Mike Schneider away some months back, but got cock-blocked by Bart despite DeBalko’s support for the move. As one insider tells me, “DeBalko may want to move Bart out, and move Grossman, whom he trusts, in.”

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