The Deadline Team of Nikki Finke, Pete Hammond, and Mike Fleming have spent recent days interviewing the studio moguls to gauge their perspective on this very close Oscar race:
DEADLINE’s Nikki Finke: You’ve never done an Oscar campaign before. These weren’t even your movies. What was the biggest challenge you were facing?
RICH ROSS: For me to be able to support films that I didn’t greenlight was putting me in the brain of a marketer. I certainly knew I was lucky that I saw Alice In Wonderland before it was complete, and I saw Toy Story 3 way before it was complete. I think what made it very easy for me, in all honesty, was working with Tim Burton on Alice or working with John Lassiter — people who pour their heart and soul into these movies. And seeing how these movies both performed and were talked about and heralded is no less thrilling because I didn’t greenlight them. I see the faces of the people who win and you know they are thrilled. And that makes me happy. I would say that the most challenging situation was coming in and coming up with a strategy of support. At the same time you don’t have relationships which people have had for 20, 30, 40 years with the different organizations who determine the outcome of those races — people in the Directors Guild or people in the Producers Guild or the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, or the National Board of Review. These are many, many organizations aside from the critics who are giving out kudos.
DEADLINE: But you had Oscar consultants.
ROSS: We already had Tony Angelotti on the animation side, and we had Kira Feola on the live action side. They’ve split up the responsibilities. And the late Ronni Chasen was working on Alice In Wonderland, too, because she had worked with the Zanucks for a very long time. So Dick had asked me if it was possible to bring in Ronni to help support the film, and of course to support the filmmaker we said sure.
DEADLINE: It must have been such a blow for everyone at Disney when she died.
ROSS: Well, it was beyond shocking because I saw her the night before and she was very much in the heat of the moment because she was very close with the Zanucks and so when it happened it was very tough.
DEADLINE: You’ve done plenty of Emmy campaigns. What is the difference do you think now?
ROSS: The Emmy campaign is so much more targeted because you’re really going for one group of people who are voting on that series of awards. The Oscar campaign difference is the diversity of the groups. You have to thread the needle. You are going from literally that first National Board of Review list through every critics group that are in Iowa and St. Louis to all the Guild groups til you get to the Oscar nomination and an Oscar win.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk about Alice in Wonderland first. It didn’t get a Best Picture nomination.
ROSS: My feeling on Alice was I knew going into it we had a proverbial issue of timing. Obviously, it made a billion dollars. But that doesn’t help you. It opened in March. So it was about getting people to remember what they saw. Aside from the problem of when they do see it, the No. 2 challenge is commercialism which seems to come up every year. Last year the ultimate was with Avatar vs The Hurt Locker where people felt Avatar already had its success because the box office was there. It’s not that it doesn’t get attention but it’s definitely a challenge in terms of people’s interpretation of the Awards season. And one of the curious things for me was Mia Wasikowska who was doing her first film and held together a $150 million plus film that made a billion dollars. And when people are talking about breakout stars, I would stand around talking about her, and they are like, ‘Really?’ Now she’s getting huge movies and I believe she will be a huge star. But to me that was the most curious.
DEADLINE: And then Tim Burton has been pretty much ignored by Oscar voters.
ROSS: I think he’s clearly at the top of his game. This was a giant year for him and I assume he wanted to be appreciated. I do believe that day will come before it has to be an honorary Oscar. And I don’t believe it will be a small movie, Nikki. I do believe it will be some substantial commercial film where people will say, ‘It’s about time.’
DEADLINE: He’s so much about the visual feast and Oscar requires a message or heart.
ROSS: And personal. You always get a sense of the more personal a story, the more promising it is in the Oscar derby. That’s why small movies have that opportunity like The King’s Speech and Black Swan, but even the personal stories like even True Grit are more chamber pieces that allow the actors to not be overwhelmed by their surroundings.
DEADLINE: Do you think Oscar discriminates against 3D and did so for Alice In Wonderland or for Toy Story 3? If people cannot see the screeners in 3D, it is inherently unfair…
ROSS: Yes, I think knowing the mechanism by which most people see a 3D movie is definitely not in its favor. And I’m not sure going forward whether any of us have a solution to that. I think there’s no doubt that a movie like Avatar and certainly ‘Alice’ and some of the other finer features are hurt. And when they see 3D work in 2D, it doesn’t help our cause any because then they say, ‘Oh well it’s fine.’ So I think it’s a challenge. I don’t know how we are going to meet it. It probably will mean a more aggressive screening program in the most convenient way possible to get people into a movie. Even a technical film like Inception – not seeing it on a big screen you can’t appreciate it. But The Social Network can be embraced and understood in whatever medium you’re showing it in.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk about Toy Story 3. You and Jeffrey Katzenberg went for not just the animation nomination but also Best Picture. You got it, he didn’t. That must have felt good.
ROSS: The feeling that I had then and certainly the feeling I have now is people are judging movies as movies. We don’t have the greatest western or the greatest action movie. Animation is just a way the story telling is done, not anything different. If it’s not the year we win, at least it opens a conversation. Everywhere I go people say, ‘You know what? Toy Story 3 was my favorite movie.’ It’s been a certainly interesting journey for me to watch, I guess. You know The Social Network has gone up and down, and The King’s Speech has gone up and down. But I know people are saying, ‘Well, I’m not sure why any of these others are presumptive favorites.’
DEADLINE: Should major studios be in the business of making Oscar movies? Or do they owe it to their shareholders to make movies that make a lot of money? Are the two mutually exclusive.
ROSS:I think obviously the goal that we all have is to make high quality movies. I think the days when your commercial films were lower quality have gone because the consumer is aggressive with the choices they have. So that’s why I guess when I look at this year and I see big studio films are actually being recognized, then I do believe it’s part of our job is to win Oscars. I think consumers are voting that way, and I think the Academy hopefully will vote that way, too.