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Disney's Rich Ross is really crazy: He thinks Pixar should win a best picture Oscar

Rich_rossIf there were ever something that Hollywood should be embarrassed about, it’s that Pixar has never won an Oscar for best picture — despite making 11 consecutive commercially successful and critically acclaimed movies. In fact, until last year, when the motion picture academy enlarged its best picture nominee list from five to 10 films, the animation house had never even landed a nomination in the category. It finally broke through with “Up,” but the movie was never a serious contender for best picture, which went to “The Hurt Locker.”

This year, Pixar has spawned another cinematic delight, “Toy Story 3,” which has made more than $1 billion around the world and garnered what are arguably the best reviews of the year, earning a 99% positive review score at Rotten Tomatoes. Disney, which bought Pixar in 2006, is so frustrated that the studio’s boss, Rich Ross, has publicly announced that, instead of settling for a best animated film Oscar, he’s going for the big enchilada.

Ross has boldly laid his cards on the table. “We’re going for the best picture win,” he said in a recent interview with insider showbiz news blog Deadline Hollywood. “For some reason an animated film has never gotten best picture and I always wondered was there not an appetite? We decided this year we have the biggest and best-reviewed film of the year. If not this year, and not this movie, when?”

Ross is putting his money where his mouth is. In the past, Disney has often skimped on its Oscar campaigns. But the studio has launched an ad blitzkrieg in the trades and in The Envelope (published by the L.A. Times) attempting to woo Oscar voters by linking “Toy Story 3” characters to familiar images from past best picture winners.

I hate to break the news to Ross, but he’s wasting his studio’s money. Even worse, if Ross keeps boasting about how he won’t rest until he’s scored a best picture statuette for Pixar, he’s going to end up like Harvey Weinstein, who staged a similarly noisy campaign for “Gangs of New York” trying to win a best director trophy for Martin Scorsese, who’d never won an Oscar. That backfired. When Scorsese finally won for directing “The Departed,” Scorsese didn't campaign at all.

Although “Toy Story 3” represents another great chapter in the Pixar history book, the film doesn’t have a prayer of winning best picture. Because Ross is a relative newcomer to Hollywood, I guess I should explain to him how this whole circus-like Oscar process works. (No one at Disney, from Ross down to Tony Angellotti, who handles the studio’s animated film Oscar campaigns, would talk about the studio’s award season efforts.) Still, Ross raises a fair question: Why shouldn’t his film win?


Ross has every reason to complain about Pixar getting the short end of the stick. “Wall-E” didn’t get a best picture nomination in 2009, even though it was just as good as “The Reader.” Ditto in 2008 for “Ratatouille,” which was just as good as “Atonement,” or “The Incredibles” in 2005, which was just as good as “Finding Neverland.”

But here’s the sad truth. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doesn’t appreciate, much less understand, animated film. Everyone also points the finger at the actor’s branch of the academy, which represents by far the largest chunk of members — presumably members who, being actors, would never vote for a film that has no actors on screen. But the problem goes much deeper.

The real issue is that Oscar voters over the last few decades have completely lost touch with their original mandate, which was to reward the films that best represented the craft of filmmaking.

If you look at Oscar winners from the 1930s through the 1960s, they were often crowd-pleasing films that were rewarded for their entertainment value, not necessarily for any weighty drama or social themes. The winners list includes such popcorn pictures as 1934’s “It Happened One Night,” 1942’s “Casablanca,” 1956’s “Around the World in 80 Days,” 1963’s “Tom Jones!” or 1968’s “Oliver!” Even as late as 1976, “Rocky” beat “Taxi Driver” and “All the President’s Men.”

But since the “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” generation came of age inside the academy, virtually every victory has been for seriousness of purpose. It’s been more than 30 years since a comedy won best picture. Sci-fi and superhero movies are roundly ignored.

Pixar films are triumphs of storytelling craft, heart-tugging sentiment and technical polish, but Pixar’s warm, suburban vision of America isn’t held in especially high esteem by the academy. If I had a dollar for every mom I know who cried when Andy and his mother took one last look at his room, its shelves emptied of all his belongings as he headed off to college, I could afford to bankroll my own Oscar campaign. But heart doesn’t cut it with best-picture voters, not unless you’re actually cutting out someone’s heart, as you could easily imagine some of the central characters doing in such bloody best picture winners as “The Hurt Locker,” “No Country for Old Men,” “The Departed,” “Gladiator” or “Braveheart.”

Pixar faces another insurmountable problem. In an era when the best-picture Oscar winner is synonymous with audacious filmmaking, no one in town has heard of most of the great Pixar directors. The other day, when a top studio executive was saying how much he admired “Toy Story 3,” I asked if he’d ever met with the film’s director. “Ughm, what’s his name again?” he replied. (It’s Lee Unkrich, not that most academy voters would know.) In an industry that has firmly embraced the auteur theory, few people take Pixar directors seriously because, until recently, there were usually two or even three directors listed on each picture.

Auteurs can be many things but not co-directors. If Ross wants to throw money at his Oscar best-picture problem, he should start taking out ads promoting Pixar’s roster of stellar filmmakers. “Driving Miss Daisy” is the only film since the early 1930s to win best picture without earning a best director nomination for its filmmaker. But no director of an animated film has ever won a nomination, and it’s hard to imagine things being different this year.

When it comes to best-picture glory, Pixar has gotten the shaft over and over again. But spending millions of dollars buying clever Oscar ads isn’t going to make a difference, although it will surely inspire wonderers to wonder about the whole pay-to-play aspect of the Oscar game. The only way an animated film will win a best picture Oscar is if the academy changes its mind-set about what represents a great film. For now, if you’re Pixar, you’ve earned our eternal cinematic gratitude for making movies that appeal to our childlike sense of wonder, sorrow and delight. But you still haven’t earned the right to be taken seriously by the motion picture academy.

Photo: Rich Ross arriving at the 2009 premiere of "The Princess and the Frog" in Burbank.   

Credit: Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times

 

 
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Another element is the emergence of the Indie Film. Indpendent films used to be stuff made by AIP and Doris Wishman, but now this is where "serious: dramatic films end up. Problem is, we have an awards show for Indie Films - the Spirits... and that show often seems replicated the very next night by the Oscars.

There is a redundancy.

The obvious solution is to not allow films entered in the Spirits to be entered in the Oscars, and the way to do that is return the Oscars to their roots - and *only* allow studio made films to compete. That way, we have the Spirits for Indie films and the Oscars for mainstream studio films... and no redundancy.

And yet the Disney animated "Beauty & The Beast" WAS nominated for a 1991 Best Picture award. Since actors do voice the animated characters and breathe life into them it would be a mis-guided bias on their part to blithely ignore the art form (even if animators are usually the real body "actors"). In many ways animation surpasses live action in most departments since every moment can be precisely planned for and directed. The type of control live action directors don't usually enjoy.

Clark Gable wept when he saw Snow White & The Seven Dwarves at it's 1937 premiere and animation's ability to move people is every bit as potent as any live action picture in the right hands.

maybe the academy should do like Dancing With the Stars and let us commoners have a voice in what the 'real' best pictures could be. not enough to let Bristol Palin in, but enough to actually mean something.

Animated movies are to filmed movies what acoustic records are to fully plugged-in records. Well, maybe not, but they are fundamentally different. Not to belittle the very real craft of making animated movies, but there are real difference between making a movie like "Hurt Locker", filming in dangerous locations with limited resources, and cooking up any given Pixar movie, where the challenges of shading and texture are confronted with air-conditioned facilities and intern-brought Starbucks drinks.

It's entirely appropriate to do a Best Animated Movie award, and to allow animated movies Best Picture nominations, but it's no tragedy than TS3 won't win Best Picture.

The bigger flaw in the Academy Awards is that there's no award for Best Comedy, a genre which gets just as ostracized.

I agree with bs' post. Maybe we should let people vote on the oscars. (although I'm sort of on the fence about this considering how many tweens would send in their vote for any of the Twilight movie garbage. Maybe their could be an age limit of 21 and older to filter them out?)

They complained about this last oscars that the academy kept choosing these unheard of movies that none of the general public had seen of or enjoyed. Toy Story 3 was a wonderful movie that I saw 4 times in theaters (and every time I never failed to cry at the end). Just because a movie is animated does not make it less of a movie and certainly does not make it a 'childrens' movie.

Maybe we should get some younger, fresher POVs in the academy and not just some old, senile citizens who obsess over gone with the wind and 'back in the day'.

The big idea here is that he has absolutely no chance at Best Director. Going up against Christopher Nolan and David Fincher, one of whom will win it this year, he doesn't have a chance.

I gotta respectfully disagree with the author on this one.

It boggles my mind that you think trying to get "Toy Story 3" a best picture win is a waste of money. And while I understand it's not from some misguided hatred toward the film - it seems to me you liked/loved it, along with the rest of Pixar's filmography - I still can't help but find fault with your argument.

Don't you think there's an argument to be made that, even when success is almost certainly out of reach, it's still worth it to try?

Let me pose a scenario: say Rich Ross ends up spending millions of dollars marketing TS3 for a Best Picture candidate (which will happen) and it does get nominated (which will happen). After some more noisy post-nomination marketing, it then goes on to lose to "The Social Network" (I can live with that) or "The Kids Are All Right" (God forbid...).

What has he accomplished? Well, for one thing, I think the hoopla over "Toy Story 3" not winning the award will be louder in 2011 than it was for "Up" not winning earlier this year. Granted, "Up" wasn't as good as TS3 (it had quite possibly the most beautiful montage ever, but the rest of the film didn't live up to that opening moment's poetry), so the outcry wasn't very audible when the underdog "Locker" won over "Avatar". It also got lost amidst those two films, along with the youthful excitement of "District 9".

But in "Toy Story 3", you have a culmination of a plethora of pop culture icons. It brought to a close one of the most celebrated film franchises of the last decade, it gave us a nice bookend to the first fully CG-animated film and it's unlikely sequel, and it rewarded us 20-somethings who first saw "Toy Story" when we were kids with a finale worthy of the Best Picture oscar. Now, "Inception" seems to me to be the kind of Wild Card Nomination that "District 9" was last year (when was the last time the Academy nominated a sci-fi action flick that *wasn't* "District 9"?), and I can see how that might overshadow TS3. But I still think TS3 is a better film, and should be marketed as such.

Now, do I think TS3 will win for best picture? No.

But only a fool would say that sad fact should curb any attempts at still trying to get it a win.

Paul G, I'm in complete agreement with you! Well said.

I used to be a believer in the Annies (Animation Awards) until a scandal broke over Dreamworks buying the vote for Kung Fu Panda to win, and it's apparently a common practice regarding that institution.

When did it become a crime against humanity to keep Pixar movies out of the Best Picture race? I'm afraid it takes more than praise from today's critics & financial success at the box office to convince me that a movie is oustanding. Sure, Pixar has made a fortune, but I would argue that "Ratatouille" is it's only consistently good movie, and the only thing that could even hold a candle to "Beauty & The Beast." The first half of "Wall-E" was great, and only the first 15 min. of "Up" were anything to talk about.

When was the last time the Academy nominated a sci-fi action flick that *wasn't* "District 9"?

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