The 12-step guide to Oscar fame
EMILE Sherman, one of the producers of The King's Speech, laughs. "How do you win an Oscar?" he says after a pause. "You've got to work relentlessly, have good taste and hope that luck strikes."
Two years ago, Hollywood pundits were describing The King's Speech as Oscar bait - a feel-good period movie about a commoner who helped a king triumph when his nation needed him. And so it transpired, with the film winning a swag of Academy Awards, including best picture.
But Sherman says things seemed less rosy when executives turning the movie down were dismissing it as "two men talking in a room". Even worse, two men talking in a room with one stuttering.
"All the studios passed on it," Sherman says. "A lot of English period films hadn't worked in the year or two prior to The King's Speech. There was definitely some excitement but it was certainly not something that anyone in their wildest dreams thought could win the Academy Award."
So whether it's best picture, actor, costume design, visual effects or sound mixing, winning an Oscar is clearly not easy. But in an industry familiar with 12 steps, there are conveniently 12 steps to winning an Oscar.
1. Choose the right movie
Unless you're the director of the shark-attack-in-a-flooded-supermarket thriller Bait complaining about not being nominated for Australian academy awards, it's obvious good movies win more awards than lousy ones.
If a screenplay examines a great life, historic event or burning social issue, and if it deals with such grand themes as life, death, love, duty and sacrifice, everyone involved will have more chance of raising that gold statuette in triumph than if it's about shark attacks in a flooded store.
Over the years, Academy members have regularly championed dramatic stories about people at the top of their field. They could be royalty (The King's Speech, The Last Emperor), entertainers (The Artist, Shakespeare in Love, Amadeus), soldiers (The Hurt Locker, Gladiator, Braveheart), athletes (Million Dollar Baby, Chariots of Fire, Rocky) or just brilliant and unorthodox thinkers (A Beautiful Mind, Rain Man, Forrest Gump).
Mind you: A lousy movie, Dreamgirls, once gave Jennifer Hudson an Oscar.
This year: Like that supermarket, these Oscars are flooded with great movies with grand themes.
2. Seek mythic stories involving unlikely success
History demonstrates it will help if your movie is about an individual overcoming seemingly impossible odds, with unexpected assistance, to achieve something important when it really matters.
This individual - usually a white male but not always - often triumphs (as in The King's Speech, The Artist, Slumdog Millionaire and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King).
But if he dies (Titanic, Braveheart, Gladiator) or is damaged (The Hurt Locker, American Beauty), something positive must result from the sacrifice.
Mind you: Sometimes Oscar winners are just strong movies that work for different reasons - No Country for Old Men and The Departed, for example.
This year: Individuals overcoming seemingly impossible odds applies to all nine best picture contenders - Argo, Lincoln, Les Miserables, Life of Pi, Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty, Django Unchained and, in different ways, Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild.
3. Go for a theme that's relevant to your audience
Screenwriters, those unsung heroes at Oscars time, make sure stories connect to audiences with the themes they explore. While The Artist, a black-and-white silent romance made by an unknown French team, was an unlikely movie to win best picture last year, it was really about love helping an artist survive in a cruel, fast-changing world. How relevant is that in Hollywood?
4. Find the right director
Whether you're an A-list star or a humble make-up artist, the best chance of an Oscar is with a movie up for best picture and/or director.
That will more likely happen with a Spielberg, Scorsese, Tarantino, Weir, Jackson, Lee, Eastwood, Coen or a rising talent than someone with less directing craft, taste and intelligence. At Oscars time, you're up against brilliantly executed movies.
Mind you: Chris Weitz's The Golden Compass won an Oscar for visual effects.
This year: So many acclaimed filmmakers have delivered quality movies that Ben Affleck (Argo), Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) and Tom Hooper (Les Miserables) were squeezed out of a directing nomination.
5. Set the story in Los Angeles
Movies set in iconic American locations often win, whether it's Chicago in Chicago, Boston in The Departed, the modern west in No Country for Old Men, the old west in Unforgiven or American suburbia in American Beauty. So do movies that mythically represent other exotic places, such as India (Slumdog Millionaire, Gandhi), England (Chariots of Fire, Shakespeare in Love, The King's Speech), the Middle East (Lawrence of Arabia) or Middle Earth (The Return of the King).
But why, in 2006, did Crash beat the masterful Brokeback Mountain for best picture? It could have been a conservative Hollywood backlash against a gay western. But Crash was set in LA, which meant all those traffic dramas and life crises resonated as a home-town story for many Oscars voters.
Whether you're Clint Eastwood with Million Dollar Baby or Michel Hazanavicius with The Artist, the best place you can set a movie that appeals to Hollywood is, yes, Hollywood.
Mind you: LA won't help if you're aiming for best foreign language film.
This year: Not only is Argo partly set in Hollywood, it's about Hollywood filmmakers inventing a fake movie to liberate Americans while humiliating a Middle Eastern enemy. It's a metaphor for the movie business at its finest. Now there's your Oscar bait.
6. Make a movie that appeals to actors
Actors make up by far the largest branch of the Academy's membership, which shows why there is often a strong crossover between the top prize at the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the best-picture Oscar. Naturally enough, actors love movies with great roles for actors. Getting down and dirty, portraying a real person and playing feisty or psychologically troubled helps.
Judging by past Oscars, actors especially love movies that involve performing and showbiz (The Artist, The King's Speech, Slumdog Millionaire, Crash, Shakespeare in Love). And they really, really love movies where actors show how easy it is to direct, as Mel Gibson did with Braveheart, Kevin Costner with Dances with Wolves and Eastwood with both Million Dollar Baby and Unforgiven.
Mind you: Actors don't love anti-Semitism or outbursts against women, so Gibson won't be winning again soon.
This year: Affleck directed and stars in Argo, which is about the movie business coming to the US' rescue. It also won the top prize at the SAG Awards. No wonder it's favourite to win best picture.
7. Find the feel-good factor behind the movie
Give Oscar voters a narrative they like about the story behind the movie. It will help - and this may sound familiar - if the filmmaker has overcome seemingly impossible odds to achieve something important.
Mind you: Even when you've got a compelling narrative - such as Martin Scorsese finally deserving a best director Oscar for The Aviator - you can be up against a better movie.
This year: Affleck's comeback for the "second act" of his career is working in the lead-up awards. Director David O. Russell has been describing Silver Linings Playbook as a movie that will help his son cope with mental illness. But Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) and writer Tony Kushner (Lincoln) have lost ground by having to defend their movies against criticism.
8. Sell it to Harvey Weinstein
Since Shakespeare in Love triumphed over Saving Private Ryan in 1999, producer-distributor Harvey Weinstein is recognised as Hollywood's most brilliant and possibly most ruthless Oscars campaigner. He can either help a movie win (as with The King's Speech and The Artist) or limit the chances of a rival.
Mind you: Executive producing Madonna's W.E. shows he's not infallible.
This year: Weinstein is backing Silver Linings Playbook and Django Unchained. And while outsiders for best picture, they could easily win best actress for Jennifer Lawrence and best original screenplay for Quentin Tarantino.
9. Get the title right
The imposing regal word "king" has appeared in the title of such best picture winners as The King's Speech, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and All the King's Men. An extravagant flourish clearly helps, too: The Last Emperor, The Godfather, The Greatest Show on Earth, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Great Ziegfeld, Grand Hotel.
But there's one word that has been in the title of seven winners since 1990, including the past three. It implies the sort of certainty that Oscar voters must like. "The" is shared by The Hurt Locker, The King's Speech and The Artist.
Mind you: Terms of Endearment once beat The Big Chill, The Dresser and The Right Stuff.
This year: Does it work in French? We'll know if Les Miserables wins.
10. Make a hit
Hollywood being Hollywood, successful movies win Oscars more often than box-office fizzers. So if you can make your movie appeal to audiences without seeming like a crass blockbuster - see The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises - you're on the way.
Mind you: The Hurt Locker, which took $US49 million worldwide, beat Avatar which took $US2.8 billion.
This year: All the leading best picture contenders are hits.
11. Win key lead-up awards
If you want an Oscar, the best path is triumphing at Hollywood's guild awards - producers, directors, screenwriters, actors and others.
Mind you: Nicole Kidman missed a Screen Actors Guild Award for The Hours but still won the Oscar.
This year: Wins for Argo for best picture, Lincoln's Daniel Day-Lewis for best actor and Les Miserables' Anne Hathaway for best supporting actress have set them up for Oscars victories.
12. Forget all this and just make a brilliant short film
Animator Adam Elliot spent 14 months working in a storage unit to make the Oscar-winning Harvie Krumpet. Shaun Tan emerged from nowhere to triumph with The Lost Thing. You get the same statue for best animated or live-action short as for best picture.
Mind you: Any idea how many short films are made around the world every year? Competition is fierce.
This year: Fox and Disney animated shorts face three independents.
SO WHAT will happen this year? All the acting and most of the craft awards will likely go to movies up for best picture this year. And when it comes to winning the top Oscar, Emile Sherman believes the Producers Guild Award, which turned the tide from The Social Network to The King's Speech two years ago, is the key. That confirms Argo as hot favourite to win best picture.
But Oscar voters are smart enough to recognise the Hollywood touches that ramp up the drama in Argo - the chasing vehicles following the plane on the tarmac, for example.
However, even if it's not set in showbiz and made by a director on the comeback, there is another quite brilliant movie that could possibly upset expectations - Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. Sometimes quality makes its own rules.
The Academy Awards air on Channel Nine on Monday at 12.30pm.