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Theories about
Brokeback upset abound

Theories about
Brokeback upset abound

Looking back at how Crash climbed over Brokeback Mountain to take the Best Picture prize at the Academy Awards on Sunday, the question isn't "Why didn't we see it coming?" but "Why didn't we believe we were seeing it coming?" Despite the fact that Brokeback had swept the most meaningful awards races from December through February, the buzz was that Crash was gaining momentum while Brokeback was losing steam. Nonetheless, most Hollywood handicappers just weren't willing to believe the Oscar outcome would differ from all those earlier votes by members of the Producers Guild of America, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the Broadcast Film Critics Association, and the British Academy.

What some insiders are saying privately is that many Academy members felt so threatened by Brokeback's gay cowboy romance, they couldn't bring themselves to view it even on DVD. As a result, many votes reportedly were cast much later in the game than is usually the case--by which time Crash was being perceived as a worthy alternative. There also may have been fewer votes to count, if reports are true that as many as 20% of Academy voters didn't send in their ballots.

If that's what happened--the public will never know, of course, since the Academy never reveals the voting results--it becomes easier to understand how Brokeback got trumped by Crash. With 6,188 voting members of the Academy, if 20% of them abstained from voting that would remove 1,238 votes from the mix and leave just 4,950 to determine the outcome. In a race where, typically, every vote counts, that alone could dramatically alter the results.

Moreover, insiders are also pointing to a little known piece of Oscar trivia: Not since 1980's Ordinary People has a film won the Best Picture Oscar without also having had a nomination for Best Film Editing. Brokeback wasn't a film editing nominee this year, while Crash film editor Hughes Winborne took home the Oscar. Insiders claim that film editors don't vote for Best Picture nominees that aren't also Best Film Editing nominees--there are 239 members of the Academy's Film Editors branch. If their votes are added to the 1,238 that quite possibly weren't cast at all, that's a total of 1,477 votes (nearly 24% of the total Academy membership), that didn't go to Brokeback.

Actors, meanwhile, make up the Academy's biggest branch. There are 1,359 actors who vote, and they represent nearly 22% of the Academy's membership. It's a safe bet that they preferred Crash to Brokeback, since the Screen Actors Guild in late January gave Crash its Best Ensemble Cast award, its equivalent of a Best Picture honor. It was the only important vote that Brokeback missed out on, but it sent a signal that the movie wasn't resonating with actors.

By sending about 110,000 Crash DVDs to SAG's full membership, Lions Gate Films made sure that all of the guild's members had an opportunity to watch the film at home. This was the first time anyone had ever sent DVDs of an Oscar contender to the full SAG membership. Because this marketing technique worked so well, other distributors are likely to adopt the same approach next year. It's worth noting, however, that the reason Lions Gate was comfortable doing this was that Crash had opened in theaters last May and had gone into DVD in September. The DVDs sent to SAG members didn't need to be specially watermarked or encrypted because awards season piracy wasn't something Lions Gate was worrying about at that point.

In future campaigns, however, studios with films opening theatrically in November or December will find themselves at a disadvantage, since promotional DVDs have a much greater risk of being pirated. Their distributors will have to weigh the pros and cons of sending them on DVD to all SAG members.

Crash had an additional advantage with SAG and members of other unions because it was shot in the Los Angeles area. Unlike Brokeback, which filmed in Canada, Crash provided jobs for actors and other L.A.-based workers, who are increasingly frustrated by "runaway" productions that travel to far-flung locations where cheaper costs and tax deals are increasingly helping producers stretch their budgets. Moreover, because Crash was a story dealing with complex racial relations in Los Angeles, it was something that L.A.-based Academy members could easily relate to. Nearly 80% of the Academy's membership lives in the L.A. area, and Lions Gate was very perceptive to recognize how important a constituency that could be for Crash.

All of these were factors that should have told Hollywood handicappers that Crash was a very strong contender that would give Brokeback real competition for Best Picture. But that message didn't really get across. Brokeback was boosted by a steady stream of big victories over the entire awards season. In past years, that level of success would typically have translated into Oscar gold for Brokeback. Not so this time around. Beyond the film's sensitive subject matter, it's also possible that Oscar voters rebelled at the prospect of looking like the last group to jump on the Brokeback bandwagon. In applauding Crash over Brokeback, Academy members were saying, in effect, that you can't take their votes for granted. (Martin A. Grove, Reuters)

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