Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business. 

FLEMING: I want to start by saying that this has been the liveliest, most engaging Oscar season I can remember. I can’t say there is one classic Best Picture, but every candidate in the category is worthy, and I would argue that both Foxcatcher and Nightcrawler got robbed. Usually, one or two films overwhelm the rest, and the Oscarcast is anticlimactic. The show is always going to be hamstrung by too many awards the public doesn’t care about, and interminable speeches by anonymous people who thank other people the world doesn’t care about. This time, the big awards hold some suspense.

nph oscarsBART: I’m going to put you back in your cage on Long Island, Mike, because Hollywood has gotten to you. This simply hasn’t been that great a year in movies. It was an OK year. I’ve talked to a number of Oscar voters who simply aren’t voting at all because, as one told me, “there’s not one film out there that has totally captured me.” Which underscores this question: Why does the Oscar election process rival Iran’s in terms of secrecy? We don’t know how many Academy members vote. For that matter, what were the winning margins? Under the Hawk Koch regime, a survey was taken of Academy members soliciting opinions on the voting process, the quality of the Oscar show and other issues. The results of the survey have been deemed a secret. I’d appreciate a new openness in the Academy.

Birdman American Sniper 2-shotFLEMING: I’ve been doing the rounds all weekend, and most suspect that Birdman will win, and the rest say Boyhood. But still others say that if those two cancel each other out, another film like The Imitation Game could surprise. And coming up on the outside is American Sniper, which has touched something in the American moviegoer psyche that its impact could resonate. These and the other Best Picture candidates are singular achievements in their own right. Some shone a light on societal issues that made convenient marketing tools for campaigning distributors: Selma on the ongoing civil-rights struggle, and need for gender and racial diversity in Hollywood; American Sniper on what these campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have done to the soldiers who served their country in hellholes like Sadr City; The Imitation Game for tolerance. We’ll never see anything again like Richard Linklater’s time-lapse narrative Boyhood; I was touched by the unlikely love story of Stephen and Jane Hawking in The Theory Of Everything, with its two outsized performance by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones; I loved Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s frantic ballsy one-take drumbeat comedy about the obsessions of creative ambition and insecurity in Birdman; Wes Anderson making The Grand Budapest Hotel feel like a familiar pre-WWII European film but somehow wholly original (how did Ralph Fiennes not get nominated?); then you’ve got the Sundance sensation Whiplash. Sure there are prohibitive favorites, but if Selma or The Imitation Game or The Theory Of Everything surprised, nobody can bitch.

BART: Talk to studio executives at pre-Oscar parties and they pretend to be interested in the Oscar race, but they’re not. They’re in a different universe. They’re marketing movies that will have to gross ten times the Birdman take to break even. Fifty Shades of Grey and American Sniper together will generate a billion plus worldwide. Legendary’s write-down on Blackhat and Seventh Son ($175 million) is equal to the total gross of all Oscar nominees (excluding Sniper). Studio math and Oscar math are in different worlds. You notice, Mike, that most of the focus at the Indie Spirit Award is on the same films as at the Oscars. Maybe the Oscar show should be re-named the Indie Oscars.

paul-thomas-andersonFLEMING: There is an inevitable overlap between the Oscars and Spirits, because there aren’t that many good films; the Best Actress fave Julianne Moore and Best Supporting Actress fave Patricia Arquette both made indie movies. But the connective tissue is the creative struggle against a bureaucracy to generate some kind of truth. Michael Keaton, who is also a pick ‘em against Eddie Redmayne for Best Actor, drew a lot of Spirit Awards laughs when, discussing how many awards events he has been to, he gave out of a special shout out to the Greek demigod Narcissus. That was a perfect reminder of the self-congratulatory nature of all this, but it is important to recognize movies that rise above money-making mediocrity and sameness. Having been at the Spirits again because I love the venue and the refreshing optimism of new filmmakers, I want to offer a special shout out to Paul Thomas Anderson, for Biggest Dick Move. While accepting an award with the cast of Inherent Vice, he pointedly told people to boycott Spirit Awards sponsor American Airlines – they lost his luggage. “I’m serious,” he said. Here is a revered filmmaker who has clearly crossed from struggling artist to pampered self-absorbed auteur. These Spirits organizers fund this thing through sponsors who take a little ribbing during the show, but it would have been nice if PTA took a second away from his self absorption – can’t Megan Ellison get him a private plane? – to consider the repercussions. I heard the American Airlines people on the premises – they need that huge tent to fit all the sponsor invitees who want to mingle with stars – were appalled. Spirits organizers scrambled for a way to take the sting out of the insult, and finally Foxcatcher‘s Bennett Miller read a sheepish PTA apology where he said it was United that lost his luggage. And maybe the Spirits have to make up several hundred thousands of dollars if they lost a big sponsor. A Narcissus moment for the great PTA!

BART: That leads to a big question hanging over the Spirits and this evening: What is an independent picture? Birdman’s budget started at $16 million, ended up in the low $20s. Distributor: Fox Searchlight. Production company: New Regency. So Arnon Milchan and Fox comprise an indie movie? Is Theory of Everything (Focus and Working Title) an indie movie? Is the award season a Big Blur?

Tom Wilkinson and David Oyelowo in SelmaFLEMING: I’m not saying any of this is perfect, but isn’t it nice to have a diversion from Fifty Shades Of Grey and Hot Tub Time Machine 2, mediocre movies that rule the box office right now? Perhaps I’m less cynical and more interested in hanging onto these Oscar movies because I wrote so much about the struggles, creative and financial, that went into virtually all of them. How American Sniper changed for screenwriter Jason Hall, Bradley Cooper and cohorts when Chris Kyle was murdered after the first draft was delivered, and again after Spielberg bowed out over budget; how IFC’s Jonathan Sehring got tortured annually by bean counters for sending checks each year to Boyhood‘s Richard Linklater; The Theory Of Everything writer/producer Anthony McCarten‘s struggle to gain the trust of Hawking and his ex to tell their remarkable story; how Ava DuVernay cleverly found ways to get around the obstacles to past MLK pics including the depiction of his alleged infidelities, and changing words to his copyrighted speeches and retaining the fire and brimstone so she could make that engrossing film for $20 million. Some of these struggles went beyond a decade. These movies are worthy anomalies that rise above the crap that studios make to chase global dollars to satisfy corporate overlords. I will let go of this after today, but it was an exceptional year. No matter who wins, there are some enduring lessons here.

BART: What lessons are you talking about?

FLEMING: Hollywood will have to rethink its obsession with making the splashy late entrance in the race at year end. I’d say that American Sniper, Selma, A Most Violent Year and Unbroken’s chances were dinged. After Warner Bros’ American Sniper’s  success (it wasn’t an easy or obvious green light decision), we are already seeing a move toward real action heroes and not just superheroes (Sony just bought Sniper Elite, a novel by one of the American Sniper co-authors as a directing vehicle for Jaume Collet-Serra with Sheldon Turner scripting, in hopes of building a franchise around a Navy SEAL sniper hero). The Sniper marketing campaign could become a template for non-fiction films. As for the money talk you mentioned earlier, that movie has grossed more domestically than the rest of the Best Picture category combined, and it just crossed $100 million overseas. Cooper made it not for a payday but he sure will get one that will rival what his producing partner Todd Phillips made on The Hangover because he took a strong back-end position as producer and star. It might not be the payday that Sandra Bullock got for Gravity, but I bet it will be over $50 million. The other question is whether studios will put a higher premium on quality; the cynic in me suspects the gems will continue to be happy accidents.

BART: Next topic. The Oscar-prediction business, Mike, has become increasingly esoteric. A survey of Twitter users predicts Theory of Everything will be the surprise winner of the Big Prize. A survey by Google says it will be American Sniper. I don’t believe either of them. A Dartmouth professor quoted in The New York Times asks, ‘What’s the mystery’? Academy voters, he says, all socialize with one another, so all you have to do is listen in on their conversation. The problem: Who wants to socialize with Academy voters (they don’t hang out together anyway)?

eddie redFLEMING: THR’s Scott Feinberg ran a report of an Oscar voter sound man who presented his picks in an unvarnished way and basically boasted he didn’t see a lot of the films and voted for one because he liked the poster. That person shouldn’t be able to vote in a general election, much less be entitled to cast an Oscar ballot. I am all for transparency in baring the vote both on who wins and who is nominated, much as baseball does when it votes its Hall of Fame and MVP and Cy Young awards. Secrecy serves no one. I watched carefully during the Golden Globes as Michael Keaton won his Best Actor award and some felt sealed his Oscar win with a speech that invoked the family farm and his long road. He was allowed to ramble gracefully while Eddie Redmayne, who won later when they were trying to wrap up the broadcast, was rudely played off by the orchestra even though his speech was far shorter. You want to think these prizes are given by merit, but you know darn well a lot of these voters will say, Michael has been an actor’s actor forever, and Eddie will get his turn down the road. They might be saying that about Bradley Cooper. There is nothing you can do about this.

tomfordBART: Let’s talk about the social subtext of the Oscar weekend, Mike, because I know you’re a social animal (all right, not exactly). The ‘hot parties’ of the weekend are hosted by the top agents, who like to to display their beneficence and largesse. I decided this year to abandon the agent circuit in favor of the fashion world. Los Angeles is becoming a fashion capital and the events hosted by Armani and Tom Ford this weekend were classier and far more entertaining. Seated along Tom Ford’s glittering runway, I found myself with Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lopez, Miley Cyrus, Elton John and the fashion goddess herself, Anna Wintour. I’ll leave the commentaries to Wintour, but I thought Tom Ford’s creations were formidable. Unfortunately for my bank account, my wife did, too. And I didn’t miss the chatter about Oscar voting – there was none.

harvey pubFLEMING: It is you, sir, who’ve gone to the dark side. You’ve seen my wardrobe, right out of the Regular Guy line of clothes espoused by Rodney Dangerfield in Easy Money. I bought a sports jacket and wore it all weekend and only later realized how much the inner lining resembles Ebola under a microscope, which was probably why it was in my price range. I liked the movie Tom Ford directed and if he’s got another, I’m all ears. The rest of this is distraction. I know the who-are-you-wearing stuff is part of the fantasy factory part of Hollywood, but to me it’s the least interesting thing about Oscar weekend. But I hear your point about how everybody has moved on. I went last night to Harvey Weinstein’s dinner for his nominees, and was surprised he used it to road test his Neverland stage follow-up, Around The World in 80 Days. All his guests, from TWC pic nominees to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Anna Wintour, Google’s Eric Schmidt, Irving Azoff, Ron Perelman, to many others were serenaded workshop-style while they ate braised short ribs. Next year’s pre-Oscar dinner performance will be a stage musical adaptation of the early Miramax hit Cinema Paradiso, Harvey hinted. By the way, Harvey had perhaps the best thank-you line this weekend when he and brother Bob got an award by the Publicists Guild (I lost Journo of the Year for the umpteenth time there, and I wonder if it is appropriate to lay down a Deadline decree that my co-workers stop calling me Susan Lucci). When it was Harvey and Bob’s turn, they candidly apologized for past bullying of most every publicist in that room, and Harvey thanked Lexipro for his improving demeanor.