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Variety’s Tim Gray on the Oscars, Conspiracies, and James Franco

February 25, 2011

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rsz_bates.jpgThe 83rd Academy Awards are right around the corner, and there’s plenty to talk about in terms of nominations and snubs by the Academy voters. The Social Network or The King’s Speech? Annette Benning or Natalie Portman? The foreign film you haven’t seen or the other foreign film you haven’t seen? Even though the media all but chooses the eventual winners, there is still hope for major surprises (John Hawkes, anyone?).

With the Awards to be presented on Sunday, Guernica caught up with Tim Gray, group editor of Variety, to discuss this year’s nominations and his thoughts on hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway.

—Justin Alvarez

Guernica: Does a larger list of nominees for Best Picture mean that there will be a better mix of mainstream versus independent films competing against one another, or has this expansion diminished the allure of receiving a Best Picture nomination?

Tim Gray: One of Oscar’s goals in expanding to ten Best Picture contenders was to get more crowd-pleasers into the mix. It seems to be working. This year’s ten films have collectively earned more than $2.6 billion at the international box office, ranging from $1.2 billion for Toy Story 3 and $10 million for Winter’s Bone. That’s in stark contrast to 2005 (the year that Crash eventually won): When the nominations were announced, one of the documentary contenders, March of the Penguins at $114 million, had grossed double any of the five Best Picture hopefuls. Last year’s ten also included popular fare like Avatar, District 9, and The Blind Side. There are some members of the Academy who think it DOES diminish the nomination.

Guernica: Do more Best Picture nominees allow for genre films typically ignored by the Academy — comedies, horror, and thrillers — the opportunity for Oscar recognition?

Tim Gray: In theory, there is a better cross-section of films. However, there still are no documentaries, foreign films or flat-out comedies. It’s hard to come to any hard conclusions after only two years, but so far, there is a more interesting mix. We’ll see what happens with the ten contenders in the next few years.

Guernica: Why was a film like Waiting for Superman — which enjoyed strong backing from Paramount and Bill Gates and was directed by past Oscar winner Davis Gugguenheim — not nominated?

Tim Gray: I don’t know why Waiting for Superman wasn’t nominated. The Academy and its accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers keep all the tallies secret, so we don’t know if Waiting for Superman missed out by one vote or by dozens. The secrecy makes sense: Nobody would want to be known as the person who earned only three votes out of 6,000. But with no results announced, there are conspiracy theories: When a film or individual is not nominated, some people kind of assume they got zero votes. I know a lot of people who loved Waiting for Superman, and I was a little surprised it wasn’t there, but I guess SOMEBODY has to come in sixth…

Guernica: This year marks the first time in ten years that there have been no black acting nominees. Why were films like Brooklyn’s Finest, For Colored Girls, and Frankie and Alice either critically dismissed or little seen by audiences?

Tim Gray: Those are two big questions. There were nine consecutive years with black acting nominees, but none this year. So is the glass half-full or half empty? In the first 50 years of the Academy Awards, only thirteen performances by black actors were nominated. In the last 33 years, there have been forty-five nominations. So, the numbers are increasing but, again, half-full or half-empty? One could also ask why there are so few Asian, Arabic, or Spanish-speaking actors nominated this year — or any year, for that matter. As for Brooklyn’s Finest, For Colored Girls, and Frankie and Alice, I’m not sure why they weren’t more embraced by audiences and critics. But Hollywood history is filled with films that didn’t find an audience until years later.

Guernica: As A.O. Scott pointed out in the New York Times, the Academy insists on a one-film-per-country rule in the Best Foreign Film category. Is the Academy ignoring the dozens of accessible and entertaining films from other countries and settling on what has long been its tradition — Hollywood?

Tim Gray: The Academy always says it’s trying to create a level playing field, and there are no easy solutions to the foreign-language issue. By only having one film per country, some great films get left out. For example, France and Italy have robust film industries, so it may seem unfair to ask those countries to pick just one. On the other hand, some countries only make a handful of films every year — if that. So if the Academy threw out its one-film-per-country rule, it’s possible that all five slots could be taken up by France and Italy between them. Those two countries have a great track record with the Academy foreign-language branch: Since the start of the category in 1956, France has earned 36 nominations, Italy 27. Other countries, like Nepal, Peru, Iceland and Iran, have earned one each. So it’s possible that if the Academy changed its rules, countries like those four (and many others) could be squeezed out.

Guernica: Lastly, what are your predictions for Best Picture, Actor in a Leading Role, Actress in a Leading Role? How do you think the comic stylings of James Franco and Anne Hathaway will compare to the hosting entertainment in years past?

Tim Gray: Sorry, but I never make predictions. Variety is an industry trade, and we leave the predictions to the consumer press. Besides, by never making predictions, I’m never wrong. As for James Franco and Anne Hathaway, they’re both likeable performers, and a different direction from the standup comics that often have hosted. I hear they have a nice chemistry and people who’ve seen them work together predict they’ll be good.

The Oscars are on Sunday, February 27th, at 8pm/5pm on ABC.

Copyright 2011 Justin Alvarez

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Timothy M. Gray became group editor of Variety in April 2009, overseeing Daily Variety, the weekly edition and variety.com. He is the author of The Hollywood Dictionary, and is a co-author of Cannes: Fifty Years of Sun, Sex & Celluloid.

Justin Alvarez is the blog intern at Guernica.

To read more blog entries from Justin Alvarez and others at GUERNICA click HERE .

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