by Michael Bowen

If the Oscars matter ... how? They have economic impact: Money magazine reckons that a Best Picture nomination means about $11 million in additional revenue for a film; Best Actor or Actress mentions earn about $1 million in ticket sales. So goodie-goodie for the movie moguls. (Nominations for screenplay or for supporting roles have no box-office impact.)

But on a recent weekend, smack in the middle of Oscar season (two weeks after the nominations had been announced), Americans chose to attend the following four movies over any of the Best Pic selections: Boogeyman (a fright flick), The Wedding Date (Debra Messing hires a gigolo), Are We There Yet? (Ice Cube on a road trip) and Hide and Seek (DeNiro has a creepy daughter).

But the Oscars are not the People's Choice Awards. That's because the voters in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & amp; Sciences are experts in the fields they're voting on, sort of.

In round numbers, AMPAS is made up of 5,800 voters. (If you're an Oscar nominee or you're invited for your achievements, you're in for life.) Nearly a quarter of the members (1,300) are actors, by far the largest contingent. The next seven categories of Oscar voter, numbering roughly 350 to 450 members each, are (in descending order of size) executives, producers, writers, sound designers, P.R. flacks, art directors and directors.

By and large (there are exceptions), each branch nominates its own people, then everybody votes on the winners. Return rates on the Oscar ballots hover around 50 percent on the nominations and about 80 percent on the final voting. Thus, for example, of the roughly 200 film editors, only about 100 actually nominate five of their peers. (There are, after all, about 250 movies in competition each year. Lots of folks must think it's unfair to vote without having seen all the entrants.) So when it comes to voting on the Academy Award for Achievement in Film Editing, about 4,500 other people -- who, with some exceptions, really don't know much about film editing at all -- end up selecting the winner.

You can see where the unpredictability comes in.

But some of the Academy's biases are predictable. After the actors come about 900 execs and producers -- the people who first "attach" stars to a "project" and thus have the most investment in what great performers Star A and Leading Lady B are. That's 2,200 people who are acting-centric in their evaluation of the most collaborative craft of all.

That's why movies about actors and acting -- the craft of making theater, the trials of the life artistic -- do so well at Oscar time. Remember how Shakespeare in Love upset Saving Private Ryan?

This phenomenon -- Actors Love To Watch Themselves -- explains a lot about this year:

* why Finding Neverland (about a playwright who lives in his imagination) probably edged out Hotel Rwanda for the fifth Best Picture slot

* why Jamie Foxx (hey, Ray Charles was an artist) has even more of a stranglehold on Best Actor

* why The Aviator (Howard Hughes was a movie director first) will win Best Pic

* why Cate Blanchett will be rewarded for stepping aboard the USS Katherine Hepburn and cruising into port stylishly (my, she was yare)

* why Thomas Haden Church (a washed-up TV actor playing a washed-up TV actor) is hanging in so close to the eventual he's-due-now winner for Supporting Actor, Morgan Freeman

* why Mike Leigh (who actually allows actors to rehearse for months!) got the only Best Director nomination not attached to a Best Picture nominee

* why Clint Eastwood (also up for Best Actor) is running neck and neck for Best Director with Martin Scorsese (who has lost in this category befor to actors like Robert Redford and Kevin Costner).

Indeed, the late buzz has all been about Million Dollar Baby. All three principal actors are outstanding, it's not afraid of controversy and it's a feel-good weepie. (In addition, the best of all Oscar prognosticators, Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times, picks M$B to win Picture, Director, Actress and Supporting Actor.) Many observers have pointed out the wisdom of Baby's release schedule. M$B didn't start shooting until June, yet producers detected its Oscar potential and rushed it into narrow release on Dec. 15.

But The Aviator, which opened wide two days later, has out-earned Eastwood's Baby by 60 percent ($88 million to $55 million). Lots of people, in other words, have already seen The Aviator -- people who respect (if not love) epic American films. As more and more voters saw the boxing Baby, more and more of them will have been exposed to the film's flaws: occasional dumb-palooka dialogue; malicious figures portrayed as caricatures; and gross manipulation of our handkerchiefs. (The withholding of the Celtic phrase's meaning for so long is just plain excessive.)

Timing is crucial, because Oscar ballots were due Tuesday. Analysis becomes pointless; all we can look to is the past.

Again, much has been made of parallels between this year and 1982, when a lower-budget sentimental sports drama upset the favored big-budget historical epic: Chariots of Fire over Reds. Will the boxer beat the fly boy, repeating the paradigm this year?

But for a better, more recent parallel, consider the Best Picture nominees in '96. As with this year, the back of the pack then featured a biopic about a pianist, Shine, and -- admittedly, not a close parallel to Finding Neverland -- a drama, Secrets and Lies (directed by one of this year's nominees, Mike Leigh). Then there were that year's two most beloved movies: a romantic comedy, Jerry Maguire, and a dark movie with plot twists, Fargo (compare Sideways and Baby). But the winner in '96? An epic film about an aviator: The English Patient.

People love Sideways; they love Million Dollar Baby. But they respect The Aviator (which, in any case, is a much better film than The English Patient). And that's why, even though Clint may well win Best Director for a less accomplished job of directing, Marty will at least have the satisfaction of seeing his Aviator win the top prize.

Eastwood last won Best Picture and Best Director in 1992 for Unforgiven, which did well enough to finish 11th at the box office. Of course, the movies that folks attended even more heavily that year included Sister Act, Basic Instinct, The Bodyguard and Wayne's World.

And that's why paying attention to the Oscars matters.

The 77th Academy Awards will be broadcast on Sunday, Feb. 27, from 5-9 pm on ABC. Follow the saturation Oscar coverage on E! the Entertainment Channel all day from 9 am-5 pm and from 9-11 pm.

Publication date: 2/24/05

Newport Rodeo & Festival @ Newport Rodeo Grounds

Fri., June 25, 1-9 p.m. and Sat., June 26, 12-9 p.m.
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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.