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Stop Buggering Oscar

Michael Jackson isn’t the only accused child molester in Hollywood. Add to the list the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, whose victim is Golden Boy.

We raged in 1998 after Miramax screwed the rules so that Shakespeare in Love could murder Saving Private Ryan with an obscene $10 million marketing blitzkrieg. We decried in 2001 after the dirtiest Academy Awards campaign in motion-picture history defiled A Beautiful Mind with a gay-baiting, Jew-baiting, studio-baiting and media-baiting scandal. We scolded last year after ex–AMPAS president Robert Wise debased his own pristine reputation with that dubious flack-written flattery of fellow director Martin Scorsese. We protested in September after the Academy invented new rules to vaccinate voters against virulent strains of gossip and innuendo. We’re still howling now — but all anyone can hear is that collective hysteria over Oscar screeners, which screams on, and on. (In New York on Monday, independent filmmakers filed a lawsuit to lift all screener constraints.)

CUT TO: Cher in Moonstruck slapping Nicolas Cage and saying: “Snap out of it!”

So shut up. Stop your whining, and turn up your hearing aids. This is an intervention. It’s pathetically obvious to everyone but you members of the Academy that Oscar is suffering a complete breakdown. For God’s sake, he’s already been castrated. And if no one does something to stop this buggering, he’s going to be permanently fucked up.

Because let’s not pretend this has anything to do with the integrity of a process which purports to honor Hollywood but which now dishonors everyone and everything associated with it. (Case in point: the Academy hiring Joe Roth, the man behind Gigli, to be the 2004 telecast’s producer. How about Bennifer as Rob Lowe and Snow White?)

Instead, you know and we know this is really about the bling-bling: the gazillions of dollars spent to make and market the world’s most exportable cultural product. With all the rivers of ink and acres of forest used to write about this year’s screener-ban debacle and its unhappy compromise, hardly anyone has identified the real problem. That time and time again the Academy has fought more fiercely for matters concerning money — its registered trademarks and copyrighted property and broadcast ratings — than it ever has for the Oscar process. True, the Academy every so often amends its rules to try to contain an ever more creative string of cunning and calculated Oscar campaign maneuvers by those cliques of master manipulators known as the moguls. But this is at best a Band-Aid approach. What’s needed is the Batman suit so that the film industry’s governing body can guarantee a fair and honest contest to the estimated 1 billion people in 150 countries who will watch the moved-up-a-month 76th annual Oscar telecast on February 29. (Nominations will be announced on January 27.)

Here are five suggested fixes.

CUT TO: Jimmy Cagney in Public Enemy smushing the grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s face.

No. 1: It’s the Big Screen, Stupid!

Quit your whining and judge the movies in theaters the way they were meant to be viewed in the first place. And for cryin’ out loud at least see all the movies.

You might think that, given the Industry’s reputation for extreme technology, the Academy would by now have developed a foolproof system to ensure that its members have properly screened all the Oscar-eligible feature films. In fact, there’s no such watchdog in place.

Instead, the Academy lulled itself into a false sense of security when it agreed that its voting membership could judge the movies by watching them on videocassette (1989) and then later on DVD (1999), in the comfort of their homes near the bathroom (because of all those aged prostates). Everyone knows Academy members who do not set foot in a cineplex — not just because of illness or infirmity but also because of laziness and privilege. This noxious habit of judging Oscar worthiness based on how a movie plays on a TV screen is an affront to the motion-picture art form.

At least during an Academy-sponsored theater screening, voters must overcome the public shame of walking a gauntlet of their colleagues if they wanted to leave in the middle of a film. But in the privacy of a voter’s home, who’s to know if that DVD was ejected after 10 minutes or never put into the player at all? Thanks to this glaring failure, the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes may well be fairer than the Oscars. The Academy needs to devise a high-tech way of policing its members. Smart cards with photo IDs could ensure that all the movies were screened by each Academy voter. If videocassettes and DVDs are a must, the same special technology that prevents piracy could also rat out anyone trying to take shortcuts.

No. 2: This Ain’t Palm Beach County

Rumors swirl every year about Oscar voting irregularities. These range from unsubstantiated scandals about down-on-their-luck Academy members selling their votes to the highest bidding studio or just handing over their unmarked ballots to certain studios in exchange for promises of employment, to tawdry tales about assistants voting for the boss, or kids marking up Dad’s ballot, or worse. It’s not enough to concern yourselves with how many cocktails are drunk or canapés eaten at formal screenings; forget the cosmopolitans and colossal shrimp and focus on the cheaters. The Academy should stop letting its members fill out the ballots so informally. Instead, it should set up polling centers around the country and overseas so it can confirm each voter’s identity and ensure that each voter fills out his or her ballot. Members unable to go to the polls two years in a row don’t deserve the privilege of voting status.

No. 3: Where’s McCain-Feingold When We Need It?

Every year, it’s the same complaint by the movie and media elite: too much money is spent on Oscar campaigns. And just as in politics, the case can be made that the money perverts the election process. But the counterargument follows that there’s no way to control what studios, production companies, distributors and sometimes even the talent themselves spend to push their product or performance for an Academy Award. On the one hand, there’s the free-speech, free-market dilemma. On the other, it’s said to be impossible to distinguish between spending on Oscar vs. spending to promote the movie’s general release.

Given the money murkiness, one solution is for the Academy to place a specific cap on campaign spending. The key lies in the monitoring of the registered trademarks and copyrights owned by the governing body for words and phrases like “Oscar,” “Academy Awards,” “Oscar Night” and the statuette itself. On the simplest level, say Warner’s buys a full-page ad in The New York Times for Harry Potter Gums His Food in the Retirement Home. If anywhere in that ad the registered trademarks and/or copyrighted property belonging to the Academy are mentioned or pictured, then the media buy counts as Oscar campaigning. If not, it’s general publicity. Those Academy-hired accountants could keep track of the spending per film. This differentiation could include network TV, cable, radio, newspaper, magazine and Internet advertising as well as media kits, books and all the other ancillary crap that pours out of Hollywood only to end up in landfills or on eBay.

CUT TO: Andie MacDowell in sex, lies, and videotape worrying about “what happens to all the garbage.”

No. 4: Mo’ Hype, Mo’ Problems

The nanosecond that the final Academy Award envelope is opened and the best picture announced, the jockeying for next year’s Oscars officially begins. After all, key ad placement for the Hollywood trade papers is booked practically the day after. By summer, strategies are at full throttle. In fall, weeks of argument take place among film company executives, producers, agents, managers, lawyers and publicists about whether Seann William Scott should be nominated in which categories for American Pie: The Fourth Divorce. On and on, ad nauseam.

It is understandable, then, that Oscar campaign teams are bigger than Liberian armies, consisting not just of in-house publicity machines but outside public relations and marketing consultants or agencies ranging from one-man offices to worldwide combines.

Depending on who won and who lost last time out, the best and brightest of these promoters-for-hire are put under contract within days of the Academy’s telecast. Some are young and hungry go-getters who attack Oscar with the same no-holds-barred manner that wild animals go after fresh meat. Others are geriatric flacks who can’t see a film all the way through without catnapping, and who are employed merely because they’re contemporaries of the Academy’s voting geezers.

In recent years, whenever a studio has been accused of an Oscar campaigning sin — like badmouthing someone else’s picture, floating a false rumor or claiming Mark Wahlberg can act — the first response has been deny, deny, deny. Then it’s blame, blame, blame. The culprit is usually an outside independent contractor demonstrating what is described as “overzealousness.” As a result, the studios’ paid outside agitators promulgate a vicious cycle of dirty tricks, while the executives keep their hands clean. AMPAS should decree that each moviemaker is responsible for everybody on a film’s payroll. The studio will be penalized even if the wrongdoing is performed by an outside independent contractor. If this sounds like a sneaky way to start limiting the use of outside publicists and marketers in Oscar campaigns, it is.

No. 5: Damn the Rivers

The Oscars are phony and stupid and all the fun went out of them years ago (with the exception of Michael Moore and his wonderful whack-the-wackos assault on the right wing last time out. Think he’ll be invited back?). Let’s agree not to be victimized further by this inane broadcast or for that matter by Joan Rivers and her spawn, Melissa. Who wouldn’t want those wasted hours of their lives back?

CUT TO: A family in front of a roaring fire, reading aloud a worthwhile book.

E-mail at deadlinehollywood@gmail.com.