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Analysis: Independents' day in Hollywood?

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 28 (UPI) -- Conventional wisdom holds that independent movies scored big at this year's Oscar nominations, but a closer look suggests that the major studios pretty much had it their way.

Independent projects such as "Lost in Translation," "City of God," "In America," "21 Grams" and "American Splendor" copped nominations in key categories such as Best Picture, Actress, Director and Screenplay. Of the 20 acting nominees, half appeared in independent films.

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According to the Los Angeles Times, the success of the independents shows that academy voters are not mesmerized by major studio pictures -- or Oscar season lobbying campaigns.

"What they prove is that by its very existence the independent film world has in effect liberated the Oscar voters, freeing them to cast the widest possible net in their choices," said the paper. "The academy's recognition of the independent film world is by now business as usual."

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However, old Hollywood hand Peter Guber suggested in an interview with United Press International that a lot of what passes for independent cinema in the marketplace is arguably the product of the major studios.

Consider that New Line Cinema -- whose "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" stands to have a huge night when the academy presents the Oscars on Feb. 29 -- is a division of Time Warner.

Or that Focus Features -- whose "Lost in Translation" was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor -- is the "specialty films" division of Universal Pictures, a division of Vivendi Universal Entertainment.

"Focus is owned by NBC, General Electric, Universal and Vivendi," said Guber. "I wouldn't call that independent. You know what it's independent of? It's independent of needing money."

Sony Pictures Classics has nominees this year for Best Animated Feature ("The Triplets of Belleville") and Best Documentary Feature ("The Fog of War"). Guber knows something of Sony Pictures Classics, having established it when he was chief executive officer at Sony Pictures.

"They don't have to worry about meeting their payroll on Friday," he said.

As a producer, Guber has worked on blockbusters such as "Batman" and critical hits such as "The Color Purple." He even produced a movie -- "Rain Man" -- that combined commercial success with a Best Picture Oscar.

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Currently serving as chairman-CEO of Mandalay Entertainment, Guber also co-hosts -- with Variety Editor in Chief Peter Bart -- "Sunday Morning Shoot Out," a weekly TV talk show on cable's AMC that has become required reading for Hollywood professionals. The show is a spin-off from the pair's best-selling inside Hollywood book "Shoot Out: Surviving Fame and (Mis)Fortune in Hollywood," which has also been transformed into a course at UCLA.

Regardless of the connections one could identify between this independent studio and that major, there is ample evidence that big studio productions -- "The Last Samurai," for example -- had mixed results at Oscar time this year.

"I was surprised that 'The Last Samurai' got skunked," said Guber.

"Cold Mountain" -- produced by the Disney-owned independent Miramax -- also came up short, when none of its seven nominations were in the top categories of Best Picture, Director, Actress or Screenplay. The exclusion of Nicole Kidman from the list of nominees was, for Guber, evidence that academy voters were inclined to leave out the big celebrities this year.

"It's the 'Rocky' syndrome," he said. "The little train that could."

As a voting member of the academy, Guber isn't saying which picture will get his vote for the top Oscar. As an entertainment analyst, he said "The Lord of the Rings" looks like a fairly sure bet for writer-director Peter Jackson -- whose two previous "Rings" pictures were nominated for Best Picture, but came up short.

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"It's not the underdog but it's been the unappreciated from the accolade point of view," he said. "The academy has an institutional bias against rewarding the first time out."

Guber doesn't want anyone to take that last observation as a conspiracy theory, though -- as if the academy's 6,000 voting members somehow decide in a smoke-filled room who will get lucky from one year to the next.

"There's no cabal," he said, "no case of 'Lets get 5,000 of our friends to vote the same way.' It's hard enough get people to talk to each other when they're working together (on a movie)."

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