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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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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


Comments () | Archives (51)

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Actors are never going to pick an animated film to win Best matter how good.

The Oscars have the opposite problem compared to the Grammys in their belief that arthouse and independent films are inherently superior to mainstream films.

This guy considers himself an Oscar expert? Too many errors:
-Socially conscious movies usually win? You are thinking about 1978-1993. Please explain "The English Patient", "Titanic", "Shakespeare in Love", "Gladiator", "Chicago", "Lord of the Rings" and "The Departed".
-No comedies in 30 years? "Shakespeare in Love" was a comedy, and "Forrest Gump" a dramedy.
-In the old days it was the entertaining one that won? Early 30s maybe. Explain "All Quiet on the Western Front", "The Life of Emile Zola", "How Green Was My Valley", "Mrs. Miniver", "The Long Weekend", "The Best Years of Our Lives", "Gentelman's Agreement", "All the King's Men", "From Here to Eternity". It wasn't until the mid-50s through the 60s that superficial entertainment mostly won.
Goldstein is off because the ones who dominate the Oscars are producers, rewarding each other for Best Production (the one-time name of the Oscar), which is why they favor musicals, romantic epics, and star-studded biographical "issue of the week" movies. Campaigning and studio politics take over the rest. The difference in the past few years is that the renewed Academy is trying to favor some different types of movies.
Here's some relevant trivia: the person who has won the most Oscars ever? Walt Disney.

Lame. We have all the Pixar movies in our collection and they are simply awesome. Great storytelling, great characters. So much better than much of the "live action" drivel that comes our way every week.

I applaud Ross for trying to change that.

We've actually stopped watching the Academy Award ceremony because we feel that Oscar voters are totally out of touch with what appeals to moviegoers these days.

This isn't just a slight to Pixar. It's a slight to the moviegoing public that loves the movies they make.

Everyone, please pay close attention to John McFarland's comments, and realize that everything else is irrelevant.

Oh, and the Oscars aren't about what "the people like." You're thinking of the Peoples Choice Award.

Oh and Oh: most "arthouse" films are vastly superior to the mindless studio drivel that panders to those unwilling to stretch themselves intellectually, but willing to shell out their hard-earned cash to watch crap.

Shakespeare in Love was a comedy, and it won over Saving Private Ryan.

While I agree it's certainly a long shot for Toy Story 3 to win best picture, it's definitely not out of the equation. But I also don't think it's really a "lock" to win Best Animated Feature. While I certainly hope it will get it-- easily one of my favorite movies-- How to Train Your Dragon is another serious contender, and Tangled could also prove to upset. Remember: Happy Feet beat Cars, and Shrek beat Monsters Inc (a move that still baffles me).

The Annies are disappointing, given that the awards are tainted. Now that Disney and Pixar are pulling their support for the Annies, and given that animated features never get their due at the Oscars (but I will say Toy Story 3 has a chance for a Golden Globe), it's about time animated features get a more established ceremony of their own.

Toy Story 3 should win this year. It clearly was the best picture this year.The bottom line is does the film work? Is it effective? Does it move you? I say yes to all three. In fact, perhaps it's just me, but Disney has been making the most enjoyable movies recently.........Enchanted, Up, and now Toy Story 3.
I saw Hurt Locker....good meaningful film for sure...BUT....
UP was the best wonderful heart tugging movie I have seen in a long time and should have won. A wonderful story and lesson for our children.

See, I don't think "Toy Story 3" deserves it this year, but I do think there have been years where Pixar deserved to win and didn't and that breaks my heart. Watch "Up" again - I saw it after a year and was surprised to remember what a beautifully crafted story it told and how moving Ed Asner was in it. "Wall-E" is one of my all-time favorite movies. Ditto "Finding Nemo". I liked "Toy Story 3", and I cried all three times I saw it, but it's not the best picture of this year. "The Social Network" is. And that's what's going to win.

Give Pixar a couple of years. I don't think "Cars 2" is going to be a serious best picture contender (though sign them up for best animated film for the next decade at least), but I think it's "Brave" coming out in 2012? Start THAT Oscar campaign now.

An animated movie will win a Best Picture Oscar in the future, but Toy Story 3 should definitely not the be the one. At best it was very average and relied too much on nostalgia to be good. Even How To Train Your Dragon deserved the Best Animated Feature for 2010.

The real reason why it won't win Best Picture is because this year also saw the release of The Social Network, which is the actual best reviewed film of the year and a likely winner.

I know it's become a common knee-jerk reaction to think of animated films as the Rodney Dangerfield of cinema, but this boo-hooing over Pixar's lack of an Oscar win, which comes in the form of a spate of articles like this one EVERY SINGLE YEAR, is getting old.

The Academy doesn't understand animation? That's a very narrow-minded generalization. Are you really resorting to the old "if you don't love it, it means you don't understand it" argument? Just who exactly do you think makes up the Academy? They're people, just like you and me, who watch movies and love movies and make movies. And there's over 6,000 of them. Do you really believe that 6,000 film professionals don't appreciate or understand animation, just because they've never agreed that the best movie of any given year is animated?

Movie fans must always ascribe reasons why such-and-such has never won an Oscar, and Pixar fans are the worst. But why has a documentary never won Best Picture? Or a foreign-language film? Or...? There's a million answers to these questions, and no answers. Pixar has never won Best Picture because, quite simply, there's always a better movie out there. If, as you say, the Oscars should reward films that best represent the craft of filmmaking, what are Ratatouille or WALL-E, animated films that seek to emulate live-action as much as possible, compared to The Hurt Locker or No Country for Old Men, live-action films that actually push the boundaries of filmmaking?

When Bergman, Fellini, Godard, Antonioni, Kurosawa, Ozu, Bunuel, Mizoguchi, Renoir, Welles, Kubrick, Keaton, etc., etc., etc. have never directed a Best Picture winner, picking on the Academy for overlooking Pixar seems kind of silly and arbitrary.

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