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