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How to Win a Best Picture Oscar!

July 21, 2010

Peter Finch Best Actor Winner from Network

Fanboy talk of Inception‘s fast track to a Best Picture Oscar made me reflect on films that have actually earn the honor in order to isolate elements they have in common. I’ve noticed even puzzling choices – Shakespeare in Love – look much better with some distance from the victory. And other choices – Around the World in 80s Days beating The King and I seem down right visionary. Who knew audiences would eventually find white actors playing Asian characters so distasteful! I also noticed a lot of the films that went home empty handed haven’t exactly aged gracefully. I see you, Love Story! Other nominated films, like Z, were just entirely too trailblazing for the sensibilities of the voting populace.

Now, to be clear, I’m not suggestion I like or agree with the way the Oscars dole out their praise. And there are plenty of films on the listBraveheart, My Fair Lady, Platoon, Crash, Forrest Gump – I didn’t think were Oscar worthy pictures when compared to other nominees. Yet I understand why they won. For better or worse, the films seems to share these key elements:

The story should be easily summarized in six words or less.
If it takes two hours to explain what your film is about, nobody’s gonna give that sucker an Oscar. People are freaking busy and have no time for chow chow.

  • Underdog takes his best shot – Rocky
  • The Kang comes back – Return of the Kang
  • Daddy issues threaten family business – The Godfather
  • Detective unravels drug smuggling plot – French Connection
  • Tragedy shatters wealthy family – Ordinary People
  • Suburbs suffocate bored white guy – American Beauty

The story should adhere to classic narrative structure, which includes a clearly defined antagonist or conflict.
Now is not the time for an intergalactic sex orgy heist saga told in reverse chronological order by multiple unreliable narrators. Examples of timeless story frameworks include:

  • Person vs. The System – Network (nominated, but notable), The Departed, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, In the Heat of the Night
  • Person vs. Person – Kramer vs. Kramer, Amadeus, No Country for Old Men, Crash
  • Person vs. Self – Hamlet, Patton, The Deer Hunter, A Beautiful Mind

The ending can be uncomfortable, but it can’t be ambiguous.
Chinatown, Million Dollar Baby, Unforgiven, Midnight Cowboy and The English Patient aren’t exactly buoyant films. While audiences might grapple with the “why”, they should be pretty clear on the “what”.

It has to stand the test of time
Clothing, topical references or hairstyles can be dated, but the material needs to be timeless. While screening Best Picture winners I was quite shocked at how well MANY of them held up. I thought for sure something like How Green Was My Valley would seem silly and out of step, but actually it was a decent film. Some films – like Network – have more relevance today than they did when released. Currently, my favorite Best Picture winner is The Apartment and unless executives have stopped commandeering anonymous apartments in order to conduct adulterous affairs, even a half century later The Apartment still has a few interesting things to say.

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31 Comments leave one →
  1. July 21, 2010 8:31 am

    Wonderful analysis. Looking back at some of the runners-up I can definitely see how these rules apply.

    Also, my guess is that the voting academy members — like voters in general — skew older than the moviegoing public. So what might do well at the box office — video game-themed movies starring attractive under-40s — is probably not going to garner broad support come awards time.

  2. July 21, 2010 8:49 am

    Man, Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine used to be unstoppable.

    Snarky, this post was awesome. It also accomplished the amazing feat of making ME nerd out about movies. I got all worked up because I started looking at my dvd collection and I thought I didn’t have any Best Pic winners in my collection (which is fine… but I thought it was odd) So I started looking some of the movies I have up on IMDB and lots were nominated but lost. I was just looking at 2001 and woah, what an interesting year! Gladiator won! And while I’m all for dudes fighting CGI tigers in metal skirts, it seems odd given that it was up against Traffic and Erin Brokovich which seem like such Oscar bait.

    OMG, Wonder Boys lost to Traffic for Best Screenplay based on Material Previously Published! But Marcia Gay Harden won over Judi Dench! NERD ALERT!

  3. irishup permalink
    July 21, 2010 9:50 am

    “The story should be easily summarized in six words or less.”

    LOL! My dad (who was a journalist) used to tell me “If you can’t frame your idea in 6 words or less, in a S-V-O sentence, you don’t have a good idea.” So maybe here is proof in the pudding.

    One thing I noted is that once upon a time, disaster movies were good enough to be nominated (Airplane and Towering Inferno). Airplane has been spoofed to death, so I wonder if it would hold up on reviewing, but I recently saw TI again and yeah, it was a pretty damn good movie. Having just seen the tropetastic “2012” – which I thoroughly enjoyed for all the things it is – it is decidedly NOT in the same story-class as TI.

  4. July 21, 2010 10:05 am

    Having just seen the tropetastic “2012″ – which I thoroughly enjoyed for all the things it is – it is decidedly NOT in the same story-class as TI.

    I just watched 2012 too! Tell me what you liked about it. I liked the visuals, but found Cusack really grating and didn’t like how they did Glover. Oh that was completely undignified, though I’ll admit, I laughed inappropriately.

    @Spoon – The screenwriting categories are where votes tend to reward “edgier” fare. Partly because it’s probably a more appropriate category and partly because nobody tends to remember those!

    The decade in which the Oscars really outdid themselves in terms of picking enduring films was the 70s!

    Patton
    The French Connection
    The Godfather
    The Sting
    The Godfather II
    One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
    Rocky
    Annie Hall
    The Deer Hunter
    Kramer Vs. Kramer

    Wow, did I really just do that from memory.

    Also should note, Network and Chinatown were nominated, but did not win. They did win for other things though.

  5. July 21, 2010 10:47 am

    I think it’s difficult in general for genre films (horror, disaster, suspense, scifi, crime, etc.) to be nominated if they don’t have something to broaden their appeal, either to the general moviegoing public or to fans of other genres. In the case of Towering Inferno, there was some serious star power and a pretty simple message about building safety and greed which unfortunately was not taken seriously enough by the NY/NJ Port Authority.

  6. irishup permalink
    July 21, 2010 11:50 am

    Re 2012; I first want to say that I am an easy sell. I come ready to suspend whatever sytems of belief you The Creator want or need me to. I think this is a mindset I got from growing up with horror movies, short-stories, Monty Python, and story-telling folk music. It’s got to be a pretty big affront to believability before I go WHOA! Affronts to my sensibilites, OTOH will make me get “meta” in a hurry, and if they’re bad enough, I’ll stop consuming or won’t be able to get back into the story. In which case I will spend the remainder of the movie (or what have you) MST3King it, at least in my head if it’s impolite to do so out loud.

    So what I enjoyed, of course, was the disasters and heroic escapes. I don’t care if, IRL, the first disolving runway would have been the end of you – if the movie has eight of these (ok I think it was only 3), that’s fine by me. It’s always fun to see Vegas get it, and a movie with MEGA tidal waves, volcanoes, and earthquakes is going to satisfy my Destruction Jones!

    I also liked that there were twists to a lot of the tropes. Like I was expecting the Chief of Staff to go all Mayor-of-Amity when FIRST presented with the bad news. At this I was half getting ready to be irritated during the next 20-30min of Earnest Scientist Tries to Convince Powers that Be scenes. Hah! Saved from THAT one. BUT, was not completely wrong as when later the CoS shows his Andrew Hague meets Dr. Smith side.

    There were interesting twists on the divorced family tropes too; unfortunately, most of these were UNDONE with one swell-foop towards the end (I am trying not to give spoilers, silly as it may be for a movie out almost a year). However, as someone who grew up with step-parents about 10yrs before the “blended family” got recognized as a norm, I really liked the treatment of the son’s relationship to his step-dad for the most part.

    When it comes to the characters, I found it a really mixed bag. Cusack being a long-time crush, I was really dissappointed that he was so blah. I didn’t find him actually irritating, but couldn’t figure out why this character was so bland, and why Cusack didn’t do more. Why FFS, did they have to write in his BOOK to make him someone worth saving? This book bit was enough of a plot hole that it jarred me every time it came up. Couldn’t they have made his CHARACTER worth saving prima-facie? And I hated hated hated that little scene at the end – seriously people, ~1/2 million lives at stake, and there’s that much cheering for one white guy? Especially as the fuckin world ends? Yeah, I was MST3king from this point on. I agree with you on the poor treatment overall of Glover; another unfathomable waste – and it notably robbed Gover’s last scene of what might have been a very interesting bit of meta-commentary. The Russian Mistress also got really interesting treatment, once again spoiled at the last possible moment. Note to Emmerich: Have the courage of your convictions! Bust them tropes wide open! Resist the urge to put neat little bows on those plotlines – they looked better without!

    Pluses I noticed: scientists of color (the president only gets to be black if the world is ending problem notwithstanding) , the First Daughter wasn’t a PR person, and a decent (albeit superficial) attempt at showing IF such a situation arose, how the wealthy, white, and connected would be privileged (including their cultural artifacts), how the poor and POC would get excluded, and even how people who recognize such injustices might act – unevenly, uncertainly, and ambivalent. None of them gave up THEIR delux-disaster accomodations, even while lamenting those not saved.

    Minuses: ERRRGH. I think this can be summed up very simply: Ain’t nuthin new about Great White Hope making it while Ns of brown people perish. Thus, what might have been a very nice allegorical point about humans remaking it from scratch back where they started from, became a rather scary reinforcement of white colonial history being the natural order of things. EEEECCCCHHHH AAAACCCKKK PTHBBBBBBT!!! 0.O

    Dear Roland:
    I am a fan of your work, so it is with appreciation that I say: Please rethink things. See my note above.

    Love,
    IrishUp.

  7. irishup permalink
    July 21, 2010 11:52 am

    OH WOW! Um, sorry Snarky’s, I hadn’t realized I’d written a novel.

  8. July 21, 2010 12:03 pm

    @Irish, I think I love flawed films so much because they are fun to discuss. I think a good story line steers you in the right direction but lets you take the leaps of faith on your own. With 2012 I felt I was being shoved along, and the neat little bows didn’t make up for the fact that there were steaming piles of poo in those packages.

  9. irishup permalink
    July 21, 2010 12:37 pm

    “With 2012 I felt I was being shoved along, and the neat little bows didn’t make up for the fact that there were steaming piles of poo in those packages.”

    Redlami does the MUCH shorter, pithier, version of what I meant!

    And to try to get this all back OT, a disaster movie should be able to meet the criteria Snarky’s did such a great job of distilling. You’ve got simple story, ample opportunity for person v person/system/self in endless combinations, the “what” of the ending is usually the LEDE, ffs, and considering that the OLDEST stories humans have told each other are disaster stories (e.g. Troy, Garden of Eden, Aztec legends of 4 catastrphes prior to this one, & so on) you’d think the test of time would be a given. Yet somehow, in the 30yrs since technology gave us convincing FX, Hollywood can’t figure out how the hell to tell a disaster story anymore.

  10. July 21, 2010 1:05 pm

    @Irish Up, I LOVED your analysis of 2012. I think Roland is severely struggling with Dean Devlin off bringing fun, campy brilliance to TNT’s Leverage. I kind of miss their partnership!

  11. Alyx Vesey permalink
    July 21, 2010 1:12 pm

    Oh, The Apartment. I want to watch it right now I love it so much. Also, “Suburbs suffocate bored white guy” is how I will describe American Beauty from now on.

  12. July 21, 2010 1:32 pm

    @Alyx, did you like the film? I really wanted to like it more because I love all the principal actors, but found way too much of the film difficult to digest.

  13. July 21, 2010 9:06 pm

    Please to remember that “The Apartment” was converted into a Broadway musical, that, in fact, ran just this past season. “Promises, Promises” was the show and even despite Burt Bacharach’s musical contributions to the material, the Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth production didn’t really connect with today’s audiences, despite the addition of “I Say a Little Prayer” and “A House is Not a Home,” two Burt classics that weren’t a part of the original score performed by Jerry Orbach and Jill O’Hara. But, then again, you couldn’t really remake something with a book like “The Apartment” for 2010! I mean, not in NYC anyway. Perhaps it would have worked in a more oppressive society, but then, I’m sure that would have offended a whole different bunch of people!

  14. July 21, 2010 9:24 pm

    Now, back to the Oscars. Of course, the thing about the Academy is that it is a closed community that only invites people who have won Oscars or at least have been nominated or are very, very close people on the Hollywood scene to vote.

    Over time, the Academy voting structure has been suspect at best, with Academy members handing their ballots to their spouses for selection, or at least not having seen the films up for nomination and just voting based on preferences of the involved parties. Also, there were cases of manipulation: the 1967 Rex Harrison feature “Doctor Dolittle” blatantly bought Academy voters expensive dinners and wine if they would “consider” (wink, wink!) offering up some nominations for the film, and it worked!

    Since then, things have tightened somewhat. Studios can’t “buy” votes now, but they sure as heck try! Plus there are DVDs handed out, in case an actor can’t be troubled enough to go to one of the thousands of screening rooms or theaters across Los Angeles to view these films (for free, mind you… your Academy Membership card lets you not only see the movie, and bring a date but get concessions at the candy counter!)

    The other thing to consider is what are you nominated against. I swear, just like the year that 4 fantastic British actresses were nominated for Best Supporting Actress and the winner was Marisa Tomei for “My Cousin Vinny,” some films will “split the vote” and the Gold Guy goes home with the unexpected. I had heard that maybe they would start exposing the actual vote counts of the Academy, So you can find out just how close the balloting was, and really, we would like to know how close the balloting was!

    But yeah… “Forrest Gump?”

  15. July 22, 2010 7:42 am

    Dean, personally, the film version “The Apartment” is a lot fresher than the musical “Promises, Promises” which is entirely too campy. Also, Hayes and Chenoweth are entirely too wonderbread and don’t evoke any sort of edge the way Lemmon and MacLaine did back in their prime. Hayes and Chenoweth are very Hudson and Day (no disrespect or snarkiness implied).

    Since then, things have tightened somewhat. Studios can’t “buy” votes now, but they sure as heck try! Plus there are DVDs handed out, in case an actor can’t be troubled enough to go to one of the thousands of screening rooms or theaters across Los Angeles to view these films (for free, mind you… your Academy Membership card lets you not only see the movie, and bring a date but get concessions at the candy counter!)

    This I totally I remember from my LA days. Though my friend’s dad (twice or thrice nominated editor) took his duties really seriously, which is sweet and refreshing. Personally, I think the Oscar votes while being a closed society aren’t especially considered the elite of Hollywood. More importantly, it’s those “little people” who made Scorsese transform himself into “Uncle Marty” – kindly, blathering Grandpa Simpson type – before they’d finally honor his work and honestly, it was kind of offensive they honored “The Departed” rather than say, “Gangs of New York”, “Age of Innocence” (which is a technical masterpiece) or “Raging Bull”.

    The Oscars are the Best Boy, Screenwriter and Dolly Grip’s revenge. You wanna know who didn’t piss off the crew and screenwriter that year – Oscars are a good indications. There are far more crew type folks (who can vote in all categories once the nominations are selected) than directors and actors. Actors and Directors are like the football team and cheerleaders, which still leaves an awful lot of people in the high school.

    Nolan might be nominated but most likely he won’t win. Now, Douglas and Stone are a shoe-in. People love them some Douglas (great producer, wonderful actor, TAKES CARE OF THE CREW) and Stone (protects the crew from the actors! though is prone to getting his shout on!).

  16. evmaroon permalink
    July 22, 2010 8:00 am

    1939 was the best Oscar competition year, easily. The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind!

    Just kidding, really. I’m jet lagged.

  17. July 22, 2010 9:11 am

    @Snarky’s Machine “Promises Promises” had to be a little campy, because it wouldn’t work as a musical if you left it as it was (unless, maybe, if Sondheim did it)… Also, Jerry Orbach definitely had a lot more going for him (he won the Tony for the role) than Sean Hayes (he wasn’t even nominated). But then again, Jack Lemmon trumps them all! Could he have done ANY acting job? Maybe not convincingly, but he would have been worth watching, no matter what. Of course, “The Apartment” garnered Lemmon his first Best Actor Academy Award as well!

    You’re also right about the “below the line”rs who definitely cast their Oscar vote for the people who were the nicest to them during production! I’m really rather surprised that the people whose names run at the beginning of a film don’t quite understand this simple concept. There really is no excuse to treat other professionals badly. Everybody is doing a job and everyone is needed to do it. You don’t slash the tires of your vehicle before you hit the road! Figure it out, Hollywood!

    Really, though,” GoodFellas” was the film. That was right there with the first two Godfathers, and in some ways better, I thought. But I don’t know if having an Irish guy at the center of a Mafia story counted against, or if, as you say, everyone just wanted to slap Scorcese down for his “approach” to filmmaking. Maybe both?

  18. July 22, 2010 9:43 am

    I won’t write a full essay about “2012,” but I will say this… it was just filled with references to a whole bunch of other disaster films, like when Cusack says “We’re gonna need a bigger plane” (“Jaws”), when he has to dive down into the water flooding their ark to dislodge a rope (“The Poseidon Adventure”) Or when one of those arks carves a sidelong cut into another one, effectively sinking it (“Titanic”), among a bunch scattered throughout the film. Really, it’s a little odd to cast actors like Cusack, Thandie Newton, Danny Glover and Amanda Peet, actors that have good acting ability, and then not have them act! But, we can’t have anything overshadowing the spectacle of California falling into the Pacific or Washington DC getting tsunamied!

  19. July 22, 2010 9:53 am

    Yeah Dean! I really could watch Lemmon in anything! He should have a shelf or two full of Oscars. Going back to the post a few weeks ago about comedy, Lemmon has that insane inert timing. He can move an eyebrow and get belly laughs. Ever see The Great Race? He pretty much owns the screen in that thing and he’s in a movie with Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, and Peter Falk!

  20. July 22, 2010 11:45 am

    @poplife Lemmon was an acting Master Class, and the best part was you really could experience his abilities at any level, as just a casual observer or as someone truly interested in analyzing just what he was doing from beat to beat. I wasn’t at all surprised when Ving Rhames (nominated for Don King) tearfully handed his Golden Globe award to Lemmon (nominated for Twelve Angry Men) back in 1998.

    Arguably the greatest award show moment EVER.

  21. July 22, 2010 11:57 am

    @Dean and Poplife – Very true on Lemmon. A wonderfully generous and gifted actor. He shut things down in Glengary Glen Ross.

    Re: Oscar voting. I rather like there is some shred of justice for Hollywood’s overlooked masses – the hardworking professionals – filmgoers can’t be arsed to acknowledge by sitting through ALL the end credits (though that’s definitely an American thing). La Mommie always made us wait until the Key Grip, Dolly Grip and Best Boy names scrolled past us on the screen.

  22. July 22, 2010 12:05 pm

    I always liked to sit through the credits, but definitely made a point of staying to the bitter end after the famous Ferris Bueller post-credits “it’s over, go home” scene.

    I think some directors deliberately put fun stuff into the credits in order to get more eyeballs on the crew. Kevin Smith’s acknowledgments have always been worth waiting for.

  23. July 22, 2010 12:07 pm

    @Snarky’s Machine Yes! Reading the credits was another element of the experience of viewing a film and I had a cinema professor, Richard Brown, who disallowed anyone from leaving the theater until the “squashed globe” (as he referred it) of the MPAA appeared on screen. Then, and only then, were you free to leave. I still sit through the credits. Sometimes, you get a little treat for doing that (“Wild Things” springs to mind).

  24. July 23, 2010 6:44 am

    I love this thread!

    I think a lot of the time, to the Academy, “Best Picture” really means “Most Picture”. Not necessarily in budget, or length, or any other single measurement, but an overall sense of the biggest accomplishment. The members of the Academy may not believe a movie is best in any artistic sense, but they’re more likely to say, “Wow, it must have been hard to make that one,” and give it the top prize to show their appreciation.

  25. July 23, 2010 1:25 pm

    @Snarky’s Machine: Thank you, thank you, thank you for acknowledging Crash as not Oscar-worthy. I get people yelling at me all the time for my opinion of that film. It won over Brokeback Mountain, which I will never understand. I swear, ever since that year, each year a truly undeserving film wins. As a movie lover, it has been extremely disheartening. Loved your post!

  26. July 23, 2010 1:40 pm

    @studentinmyclassroom I think what we’re seeing is the “by committee” rule in decision making… with the difference being there is no argument explaining to voters why they should select one film over the other… and we don’t know what criteria the voters are using to decide. Was it the fact that the director snapped at them on set or they got to see an actor naked when they were on the job?

    In addition, there is a thought that Oscar voters are supposed to vote for a certain type of film. It might be fine to nominate “Up,” but for sure you better not let it win!

  27. July 23, 2010 1:49 pm

    @Snarky’s Machine: Thank you, thank you, thank you for acknowledging Crash as not Oscar-worthy. I get people yelling at me all the time for my opinion of that film. It won over Brokeback Mountain, which I will never understand. I swear, ever since that year, each year a truly undeserving film wins. As a movie lover, it has been extremely disheartening. Loved your post!

    I have one nagging thought about why Brokeback Mountain didn’t win. Thirty years from now, I’m hoping (and kind of betting) the idea of Cowboys scared to love each other will seem really odd, because perhaps we’ll be further along. Most of Oscars picks tend to skirt away from these kind of films because they are “caught in a moment” and their subject matter very much locks itself into a certain era. Now, we might not know what groups will be marginalized in the future, but it’s given that some groups will be, thus Crash, which is a blander product will seem “fresh” years from now, even if it doesn’t actually reflect the specific dynamics related to future insider/outside oppression.

  28. July 23, 2010 3:57 pm

    @Snarky’s Machine again, I ask… “Forrest Gump?”

    Well, haha. No, I get that FG was an “historic document,” and that lifts it above the “caught in the moment” argument about it, but you are raising a cogent point about Oscars sense of vision and how films with that timeless quality tend to be rewarded for the ability to speak to audiences both at the moment of their release and in the future. What are the values that we hold dear to us now, and will one hundred years from now? Despite the changes in how we communicate, either handwritten letter, telegraph, telephone, fax, text, tweet, blipvert… the concept is in the interaction, not the method.

    I do think there is a “formula” for creating a “Best Picture,” but I also think that it could get messed up by logistics. Let’s look at the 5 nominees from 2005:

    Capote, Good Night and Good Luck and Munich were all fact based films, something Oscar tends to love. And Munich had the added element of emotionality, however, as everyone knows, that story didn’t end happily (i.e. No Hollywood Ending). You might say that these three films all split the various votes and that none of them had a true chance to win.

    That leaves us with Brokeback Mountain and Crash. And here’s where I think it’s overly simplified: Crash is set in Los Angeles… with multiple storylines and various elements. And that meant the crews that worked Crash were local to the scene, probably got to go home at night, and probably got a lot of work on the shoot OR, even better, more crew worked that shoot. All huge positives if you are working crew, and a big boost to potential Oscar bait. Tell me that everyone doesn’t want to say they worked on a Best Picture Oscar Winner!

    Meanwhile, the Crew for Brokeback had to go on a camping trip, probably lived in discomfort in trailers or local hotels that were miles away from the locations, and it was probably not a lot of folks that went on that excursion to get the job. So negatives all the way for that.

    I’m sure that’s how this one worked.

  29. July 23, 2010 6:22 pm

    That leaves us with Brokeback Mountain and Crash. And here’s where I think it’s overly simplified: Crash is set in Los Angeles… with multiple storylines and various elements. And that meant the crews that worked Crash were local to the scene, probably got to go home at night, and probably got a lot of work on the shoot OR, even better, more crew worked that shoot. All huge positives if you are working crew, and a big boost to potential Oscar bait. Tell me that everyone doesn’t want to say they worked on a Best Picture Oscar Winner!

    Yes. Then there’s that.

    Also, most likely the crew from Brokeback Mountain probably had to catch a plane to Prague, Toronto or some other city passing itself off as NYC.

  30. July 23, 2010 7:20 pm

    @nycpenpusher: I agree that “Forrest Gump” won because it doesn’t get caught in the moment. I’d go on to say that it is a historic document, but only just barely. It has so little substance from actual history, the audience doesn’t have to face any challenging thoughts. It’s only empty images on a thrill ride at an amusement park.

    Oooh, Vietnam! Looks nasty. Oooh, hippies! They look freaky. Oooh, Black Panthers! They look scary.

    All the viewers have to do is laugh, cry, worry, and rejoice on cue. To me, that makes it a lousy movie, and a prime example of what’s wrong with standard Hollywood product, but to a lot of folks in the Academy… that’s perfection! Oscar-caliber perfection.

  31. January 22, 2011 4:54 am

    The British radio has called on people to write V for victory everywhere, and they are all over the place, even on shop fronts http://fa.by/8386c

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