In Academy Race, Miramax Chilled On Cold Mountain

On the morning of Jan. 27, when Frank Pierson, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and actress Sigourney Weaver announced the final film to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar as … Seabiscuit , an audible gasp could be heard from the gathered crowd. It was a little after 5:30 a.m. Pacific time, but suddenly movie executives on both coasts were wide awake and reaching for the speed dial. Cold Mountain , Miramax’s award-season thoroughbred about the cost of war and the strength of love, had been beaten by a 75-year-old horse.

For the first time in 11 years, Miramax did not have a film to call their own in the Best Picture category.

And that wasn’t all. Both Cold Mountain director Anthony Minghella, who had won the company its first Best Picture Oscar with The English Patient in 1997, and his leading lady Nicole Kidman, who, last year, had snagged the Best Actress award in her second time at bat-as Virginia Woolf in The Hours -also awoke to find that they had been snubbed by the Academy.

The shortened Oscar season had claimed its most notable casualties.

Executives at Miramax were putting the best possible spin on the outcome. “The biggest reason I think Cold Mountain had problems this year was the fact that we released at Christmas,” said Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein. “We were the last to send out cassettes. It was an early schedule this year. I don’t think people knew exactly when to get their ballots in.” Mr. Weinstein cited both Something’s Gotta Give , which got a single nomination, Diane Keaton for Best Actress, and Big Fish , which got bupkis , as two other films which may have suffered the same fate. “All these movies that were released this Christmas are being shortchanged. And I think that really has to do with the early Oscar this year.”

Cold Mountain was supposed to be the new millennium’s answer to Gone with the Wind , an epic Civil War drama that centered on a love story. The argument leading up to the nominations was not whether or not the film would be nominated, but whether or not it had a chance to dethrone the third installment of Lord of the Rings , which most pundits seem to think has the best shot to win the grand prize. With regard to Mr. Minghella and Ms. Kidman, however, Miramax might have seen this coming.

“I think there were some people who thought Nicole was glamorous in the movie and yet, she wasn’t,” said Mr. Weinstein about Ms. Kidman’s role, which also failed to garner a nomination at the S.A.G. awards. “She was a great actress. That was the interpretation of the part. Some people didn’t agree with it.” Likewise, Mr. Minghella wasn’t among the nominations at the annual Director’s Guild Awards.

But Miramax’s failure to garner a single nomination for Best Picture is the ultimate surprise, and a development that certainly could be interpreted as a sign that the major studios have decided to reclaim the gilded turf that Mr. Weinstein and Co. had merrily hijacked from them. The Hollywood studio behemoths grabbed four out of the five of the Best Picture slots: New Line’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King , Fox’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World , Warner Brothers’ Mystic River and Universal’s Seabiscuit . The only subsidiary to receive a nod was Focus Features for belle du jour Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation .

Naturally, there is no lack of speculation about Miramax’s Best Picture shutout. Some industry observers tie to the embarrassment of riches that the studio had last year in the category: Chicago and Gangs of New York , along with their co-production of The Hours -all nominated for the top prize. The resultant backlash, they say, is the Academy’s attempt to spread the wealth.

Others contend that Cold Mountain , with its odd mix of white-knuckle war scenes and Vogue -quality shots of Ms. Kidman, was just not good enough, though seven other Academy Award nominations (including Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Cinematography) and, if you count them, eight Golden Globe nominations for the film would suggest otherwise.

And of course, the conspiracy theorists who inhabit the independent-film ranks whisper that the screener-ban brouhaha and the shortened Oscar campaign window accomplished exactly what it was supposed to accomplish: once again tilting the playing field in favor of the Los Angeles–based studios that have the budgets for trade ads and press junkets.

But Mr Weinstein wasn’t buying any of that. “Every year they say there is a backlash and then we lead the nominations,” he said. “Last year, we lead. There was a backlash. The year before, we lead. There was a backlash.” And, he added, “we’re leading again.” All told, Miramax received a total of 15 nominations, though some sources at the company like to point out that if one includes Master and Commander , a co-production with Fox and Universal, that bumps the number up to 25 and gives them a film to root for in the Best Picture category.

According to Mr. Weinstein, the belief that there is a backlash is just part of the typical awards-season banter. “With me, there seems to be theory of the day. Two weeks ago, the theory was that I don’t support small movies”-a theory asserted in Peter Biskind’s recently released book Down and Dirty Pictures : Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film . “The small movies got nominated. It’s like theory du jour with me.”

As proof, Miramax executives cite City of God , the Brazilian film about a violent Rio de Janeiro neighborhood, which received four nominations, including Best Director. According to those inside the company, however, by championing a decidedly edgy film that has been in the theaters for 54 weeks, Miramax has stuck to its roots, the same roots that brought Oscar acclaim to films like The Crying Game , Il Postino and My Left Foot .

There has also been some speculation among independent producers that Mr. Weinstein’s involvement in the protest against the MPAA’s screener ban could have hurt Miramax with the Academy. In late September 2003, the signatories of the MPAA, along with Dreamworks and New Line, enacted a ban on “For Your Consideration” screeners, citing it as a necessary move to combat piracy. Mr. Weinstein was the only head of a subsidiary studio (Miramax is owned by Disney) to speak up, writing a guest column in an October issue of Variety and leading a group of art-house dissenters entitled the Independent Working Group. When a Ted Hope–led coalition of independent producers were awarded a temporary injunction against the ban in December, Mr. Weinstein supplied the prosecutors with a written statement.

Mr. Weinstein, however, said he didn’t believe that his involvement affected Miramax when it came to the nominations. “Some people were angry with me because I was the only studio person to file an affidavit and willing to testify,” he said. “Maybe there were some hurt feelings along the way.” But, he added, the Best Actress nomination of Keisha Castle-Hughes, who starred in Whale Rider , a New Zealand film that was distributed by the tiny Newmarket, proves that “the Academy wants the screeners, and they want to have time to see the movies.”

Like the aforementioned nod to Ms. Castle-Hughes, City of God director Fernando Meirelles and, in the Best Supporting Actress category, Patricia Clarkson for her performance in Pieces of April , not to mention Best Screenplay nominations for The Barbarian Invasions , Dirty Pretty Things and American Splendor , the Academy has surely seen these films.

“I don’t think that the screener-ban issue had any affect on nominations whatsoever,” said Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate Films, whose promotion of The Cooler helped land Alec Baldwin a Best Supporting Actor nomination and Girl With a Pearl Earring nominations in both Art Direction and Cinematography. “I think it speaks very well of the Academy, the way that they passed around the nominations among many different films in general.”

With regard to the Best Picture category, the truth could be that the studios simply beat Miramax at its own game, fair and square-whatever that means in Hollywood. The screener ban, it seems, was merely the tip of the iceberg, while the true damage was being done under the water. In terms of release dates, do not expect Miramax to make the same mistake again.

“If this change in schedule remains,” said Miramax spokesman Matthew Hiltzik, “we will certainly take into account the lessons we learned from this year in deciding about next year’s releases.”