A Cleaner, Friendlier Oscar Smear Campaign

Insidious rumors about the top films are a staple of awards season, and this year is no different—except that for all the mudslinging, no one seems to be walking away with dirty hands.

Matt Sayles / AP Photo

Insidious rumors about the top films are a staple of awards season, and this year was no different—except that for all the mudslinging, no one seems to have walked away with dirty hands.

It’s paranoia season in Hollywood.

Every year when the Oscars roll around, a front-runner starts to emerge from the pack, and a nasty story follows. “Mathematician John Nash was a Jew hater!” became the sourceless rumor when A Beautiful Mind started looking strong in 2002. There are no fingerprints on such stories. Studios always suspect their rivals of planting them; their rivals always deny it. When reports circulated about Nash, the film’s backers turned with suspicion on Miramax, then Harvey Weinstein’s company, which was pushing In the Bedroom. Or it could have been Fox, hawking Moulin Rouge.

Sean Penn has hardly campaigned, while Mickey Rourke has been something of a one-man self-demolition squad.

Things are the same this year, but also different. Thanks in part—but only in part—to the economy, the paranoia is far deeper than usual. Everyone in the Oscar game is scared. That includes the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as it tries to keep the awards relevant, as well as those who make and market the kind of movies that end up in contention for golden statuettes.

This year, promotional ads ran, but they were far fewer. The parties were thrown but they were muted. And as Slumdog Millionaire emerged as the one to beat in the Best Picture category, the slanderous stories appeared on schedule: People in India were disgusted with the stereotypes in the movie, according to reports; the child actors were exploited.

“Of course those [stories] were planted,” snaps an Oscar campaign veteran. “You think the timing was coincidental?”

But the Slumdog story failed to get any traction. Playing detective in the sabotage game didn’t seem to be much fun this year. Even with the notorious Weinstein in the game trying to convince the world that The Reader had a shot—and this is the guy who convinced the Academy that Chocolat was worth nominating, and that Shakespeare in Love deserved to beat Saving Private Ryan—no one made much of an effort to accuse him.

Part of the reason for this depressed awards season is that Slumdog feels like a mortal lock for the Best Picture award. That has sucked a lot of excitement out of the proceedings. There’s also little tension in the Best Actor category. Mickey Rourke or Sean Penn? Penn has hardly campaigned, while Rourke has worked tirelessly but doesn't seem to have overcome some of the issues that required him to make his much-hyped comeback. He has been something of a one-man self-demolition squad, threatening on tape to break a "faggot" writer's legs, making off-color statements about dating Courtney Love, and threatening to appear at WrestleMania. And, as reported on The Daily Beast, someone leaked his text message bashing Penn as "average pretend acting like he was gay besides hes one of the most homophobic people i kno". Leaking the text could fit into the attempted-smear category, but, eh.

I have a quiver of interest, too, in whether Meryl Streep can win Best Actress again, leaving Kate Winslet with another Susan Lucci year. Winslet is considered the favorite, but Streep, who hasn't won an Oscar since Sophie's Choice in 1983, picked up the all-important SAG award, which matters because actors make up the biggest bloc of Academy voters. Many expected Winslet to be up for her performance in Revolutionary Road, with a possible nod in the Supporting Actress category for The Reader. That didn't happen, and it may cost her. (And there's Weinstein’s influence again, snagging the Best Actress nomination for his company's film, The Reader, while Revolutionary Road went begging in that category.)

But unfortunately for everyone in the elaborate Oscar game, all this talk is about films few people have seen and still fewer care about. There isn't a breakout hit in the batch. That augurs ill for the awards show, which has been suffering from slipping ratings. The show's producers are working hard to spark interest by promising "surprises." But close your eyes and try to imagine a surprise that would matter. And as a veteran producer of the program says, the ratings aren't about the show but the movies in contention. Unfortunately for the Academy, its members did not nominate the one hugely popular film that it would have liked to see in the race: The Dark Knight.

Paramount has spent mightily to make Benjamin Button the darling of the group, but it seems clear that all has been for naught, given that it’s up against the Slumdog juggernaut. Even the filmmakers know they’re in for a long night on Sunday. (Figuring out how many millions of dollars Paramount might have spent is a parlor game in Hollywood. No one knows, but most agree with the Oscar campaigner who says, “It’s a pretty amazing outlay of money on a movie that’s done $130 million domestically.”)

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So the general trend was to cut back, and not just on ads. Yes, parties were thrown, but not on the scale of previous years. And the Academy, which has tried to enforce rules to prevent these affairs from being naked bids for votes, seemed to stand down, according to one longtime Oscar-watcher. "A lot of people realize this isn't what we should be arguing about," he says.

What the Academy needs to do is figure out how to stay relevant. And this goes far beyond the awards show and the slipping ratings. As noted in the Los Angeles Times this week, the usual Oscar "bounce" at the box office that follows a batch of nominations didn't happen this year. Frost/Nixon picked up five nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor—and remained a flat, money-losing pancake.

Audiences are flocking to movies—just not the ones in contention for an Academy Award. At a time when studios are giving up on their art-house labels, this doesn't bode well—not just for the Academy Awards but for the films that are made in pursuit of them. "The larger issue is that you cannot make movies anymore that require nominations to guarantee success," says a studio veteran. "It's too expensive a gamble."

Kim Masters covers the business of entertainment for NPR News. She is also the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.