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The Sound & Fury of the Negative Oscar Campaign

By An Alan Smithee Column | Industry | February 10, 2011 |

By An Alan Smithee Column | Industry | February 10, 2011 |

Yes, it is truly I, Alan Smithee, the director of memorable films such as Beach Cops, Street Walkers 3, Fugitives Run, Woman Wanted, Hellraiser Bloodline, Raging Angels, Bloodsucking Pharaohs In Pittsburgh, Let’s Get Harry, and the edited-for-television versions of Heat, Dune, and Rudy. As my name occupies the most ignominious artistic status in Hollywood circles, I have nothing to lose or fear in discussing the fine art of negative campaigning associated with the Academy Awards. No matter what I say or do, those studios always come back for more of that distinctive Smithee directorial genius!

To start, let’s take a look back at a few of the more memorable attempts at keeping Oscars away from potential recipients. This is far from comprehensive.


William Randolph Hearst was so enraged by his loose depiction in Citizen Kane that he used the full extent of his media empire to wage war against the film and Orson Welles. Hearst’s influence and threats spread to the film industry and were pervasive enough to limit the film to only one award. Reportedly each nomination announcement at the Oscar ceremony received boos. Imagine if Mark Zuckerberg was not happy about The Social Network and decided to let you know about it every single time you logged into Facebook.


The Red Scare and the resulting blacklist infamously rocked the industry. The Oscars were not immune, as High Noon — viewed by many to be an allegory for resistance to the House Un-American Activities Committee — captured four Oscars but failed to grab the Best Picture prize, losing to the frequently derided Greatest Show On Earth, a film by McCarthy supporter Cecil B. DeMille. Blacklisted screenwriter Carl Foreman spent most of the remainder of his life outside of the United States.


Have you ever heard that rumor that Ben Affleck and Matt Damon did not deserve sole writing credit on Good Will Hunting? Maybe Kevin Smith wrote it, or perhaps William Goldman was the script doctor. Can you guess when that rumor started making the rounds? That’s right: Oscar season. Damon and Affleck (with mothers in tow at the ceremony) managed to take the screenplay prize regardless.


This was perhaps the most hyped of the recent campaign wars. DreamWorks vs. Miramax. Spielberg vs. Weinstein. Saving Private Ryan vs. Shakespeare In Love. Historical accuracy (a quibble that seems to have become a motif as of late) of Spielberg’s film was called into question by certain journalists, who later admitted to acting at the request of Miramax publicists. Spielberg won the directing award, but Shakespeare In Love earned the votes for the top prize, and the perception that Miramax bought Best Picture with aggressive campaigning remains.


A Beautiful Mind took several of the top awards, but in order to do so it had to withstand pointed allegations of its own inaccuracies. Did the version of John Nash created by Ron Howard and company irresponsibly cover up anti-Semitism by Nash and paint his marriage as sunnier than it was? Perhaps the only thing we can say for certain is that anyone closely following the Oscar race that year learned a lot about John Nash.


“Won’t somebody think of the children?!?” Slumdog Millionaire underpaid its child stars and sent them back into the harsh real-life slums of India after they served their narrative purpose, or so we heard. Whatever the case, with the increased scrutiny the studio took steps to assure concerned audiences that the kids would be fine. The movie was named Best Picture.


The Hurt Locker’s producer Nicolas Chartier went a step too far in an email, encouraging Academy members to vote for his underdog picture, slamming big-budget rival Avatar in the process. This breach of etiquette prompted the Academy to revoke his invitation to the ceremony. Chartier took the Best Picture award in absentia.


This Oscar season has been relatively quiet thus far compared to some of the ones described above, but frontrunner The King’s Speech has received some attention in the historicity department. In this case, the film is said to glaze over the British royal family’s tendency toward appeasement of Hitler and the Nazis during the period described in the film. Christopher Hitchens wrote a piece for decrying the film as “riddled with gross falsifications of history” and concludes with even stronger language: “So this is not a detail but a major desecration of the historical record — now apparently gliding unopposed toward a baptism by Oscar.”

Perhaps films contending for Academy Awards can preemptively battle smear campaigns by including the Nazis in their subject matter, thus automatically making any critique the victim of Godwin’s Law. In this case, questions about historicity seem particularly sticky, given that the perceived chief rival in the Oscar race, The Social Network, leaves accuracy questions of its own with a much more recent comparison with reality available for the events therein.

The Academy’s primary guideline for campaigning is simple enough. Publicists for nominees can bombard Academy members and the rest of Hollywood with all the positive “For Your Consideration” ads that they like, but there are to be no specific attacks against any particular opposing nominee. Tracing the ultimate source of a negative piece about an Oscar nominee is not always easy; given the amount of attention that Oscar favorites receive these days via an endless supply of movie-related websites in addition to the traditional media, it need not be an enemy studio that would have an interest in stressing the negative aspects of any given film. For example, Christopher Hitchens could be a friend of David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin as far as I know, but it seems just as likely that he is simply a British citizen that wants to preserve the integrity of the historical record.

I, Alan Smithee, am not a member of the Academy, but plenty of that Oscar publicity makes its way through my office this time of year in the name of finding those votes that will give a film the precious DVD-box-cover Oscar endorsement and the extra dollars that follow. Over the past few weeks, three mailers - two postcards and a DVD - tied to one negative campaign caught my eye as falling outside the norm. The source of this particular campaign is not shy about its identity, and its aggressiveness is no less than that of any of the campaigns above. This time, the target is Disney, and the attackers are its own employees.

The Disney hotel workers union feels unfairly used by the company, which has hiked the rate on their healthcare. Protests have been held, Buzz and Woody toys have been publicly returned by the employees’ children, heartstring-pulling videos have been shot, accusations of hypocrisy with respect to the message of Toy Story 3 have been leveled, and it all takes place under the united banner of convincing Academy members not to anoint the film as Best Picture.

Perhaps we almost could call it refreshing to see a negative Oscar campaign focused not on taking down a film based on either its supposed lacking quality or in the name of increasing the chances of a different film. The workers of Local 11 appear to acknowledge that Toy Story 3 is a good movie, and they do not offer preferred alternatives in the voting. They only want to cut into Disney’s financial bottom line and reward anything but Toy Story 3. Who am I to not sympathize with needy children or not acknowledge that big corporations sometimes screw over their employees?

I realize that above all else the Academy Awards serve as a platform of publicity for this issue, and in that sense the union succeeds simply by prompting discussion about their issue.

I cannot help take the union’s publicized goal at face value and wonder about it, though. (It might not surprise you that director Alan Smithee is something of a literalist.) Disney has been making a push for Toy Story 3 to win Best Picture, but would any Oscar pundits give an animated sequel a realistic chance of succeeding over prohibitive favorites The King’s Speech, The Social Network, and True Grit? In all likelihood it would not win the award whether this campaign existed or not. I suppose they can claim some measure of victory when it loses, but with no demonstrative effect of their protest, does it gain them any leverage? Would it not make more sense to ask Academy members to deny it the Best Animated Feature prize, which the film seems a mortal lock to attain? Would that not be the more glorious upset?

In either case, the Toy Story series is so beloved that Oscar’s endorsement as Best Picture or Best Animated Feature would have a relatively small impact on Disney’s bottom line. Those inevitable DVD trilogy box sets will still be purchased, and it is difficult to imagine anyone beyond those obsessive completists who are compelled to watch every single Oscar winner and do not otherwise watch kiddie fare being pulled in as new viewers.

In today’s economic climate, this case of David and Goliath that goes beyond the much pettier Oscar squabbles of years past is more sobering than anything else. It is sad to think of our good friends Buzz and Woody under fire. Let us hope for some sort of amicable settlement between management and labor and a return to more entertainingly catty and covert negative Oscar campaigning (if we must have it) going forward.

Alan Smithee desperately yearns for that Oscar that continues to elude him. His bootless cries to fate ask: “How is it that my name keeps ending up on these horrible films?” He had high hopes for collaboration with friend and Oscar nominee Donald Kaufman, but, alas, Donald passed away in the swamps of Florida in an orchid-related incident. Alan once considered legally changing his name to Michael Bay, but after that other director came along, he feared no one would be able to distinguish their work.

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