"It's the best of what's offered," says one member of the Academy Screening Committee. This group of about ten Academy members choose what the membership gets to see every weekend on the fabulous big screen at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater on Wilshire Boulevard.
Most of the year the members see about 25 movies a month, booked on weekends. The picks are seasonal. In the fall, though, what they see has an impact on the Oscar race. A Serious Man, Coco Before Chanel, An Education, Julie & Julia and Michael Jackson's This is It all played well. Chris Rock's Good Hair and Amelia? Not so good, but they were certainly well inside the Academy Zone.
The new committee, which has changed membership since agent Larry Mirisch took over as chairman two months ago, often books movies that seem unlikely to play well to the older Academy members who tend to attend the screenings, or to have any relevancy to the Oscar race. At the same time they turn down films that might benefit from being seen on the big screen.
This fall, for example, they screened ominibus film New York I Love You, violent Brit prison flick Bronson, Searchlight's Jared Hess youth comedy Gentlemen Broncos, Overture's stoner comedy The Men Who Stare at Goats, and Universal's vampire comedy Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant. And they passed on John Woo's $80-million war epic Red Cliff, the most expensive ever made in China, which should have been a soft lob down the middle for Academy craftspeople.
There are complaints that so few Academy members turn up at these screenings. But it's like any other exhibition situation: they show when they want to see the film. The titles are submitted by distributors, along with a logline. "It's our job to pick the films we believe the membership would want to see," says Mirisch, who has tried to reorganize the committee in order to give it a different demographic, and wants to lure younger members to the theater. The committee convenes once a month to vote on the next month's program of films. "I wanted the selection of movies to be as democratic as possible. Unfortunately we don't see the movies before. So much of it is the taste of the people in the room. Some movies don't get enough votes." Mirisch now asks the committee members to search the web for trailers and reviews, if possible.
Another bizarre practice: in December, the Academy screenings are cut back--just when most of the Academy contenders start to become available. Thus getting a berth during December even tougher. Especially this year, with ten slots available for best picture, the pile of Academy screeners will be deeper than ever, with indie titles many members have never heard of, from The Messenger and That Evening Sun to Trucker and The Last Station. Well-curated Academy screenings could steer voters to see worthy films they might otherwise have skipped.