MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

20 Weeks To Oscar: Line Dance

At the risk of sounding like I want the newer competition off of my lawn, things have changed dramatically in the Oscar game in the last few years. On one level, things have become more professional. But an inch deeper than that, the new professionalism has created an increasing disregard for the underpinnings of what have made Oscar such a unique event.

What was once something the media covered is now something the media chases as a key revenue stream.

What was once a smattering of catered events with one friend helping another reach more acquaintances who were all part of the club is now a business of sponsors and caterers and nightly competition.

What was once an opportunity for the geeks of the business, we critics, to honor and adore our favorites of the year has become a cutthroat game of announcement and party slotting, in some cases mirroring Oscar as the primarily financial event of an awards-giving group’s year.

20 years of Oscar consultants, in-house and out, figuring out how to game the system, and a decade of deteriorating media standards has led to an out-of-date response mechanism at The Academy, which just wants to do what it’s been doing all these years and to protect, as best they can, their membership from being prayed upon by the vultures.

But where is the line?

No one can seem to agree. Fewer seem to care.

Harvey Weinstein’s methods seem positively quaint at this point. “Eewww… he made a phone call!” “Eeeewww… he got an endorsement from a 90-year-old!” What a lightweight!

We live in an awards universe that continues to indulge the shenanigans of (in order of legitimacy) The Golden Globes, National Board of Review, and The Carlos De Abreu “You Bring A Star, I Bring The Award” scam. Everyone complains… and everyone covers these things like they matter in the slightest when it comes to winning an Oscar, aka The Only Non-Guild Award Anyone Really Cares About.

We now have a critics group that has rationalized to itself that it makes sense to pick year end winners six weeks before the end of the year. Why? Because it takes time to organize a dinner and because they really want to be first and they’ve decided that the studios can deal with showing a few movies extra special early.

But wait… what about honoring movies? Isn’t that the real purpose? How high a priority is that now?

Of course, every one of these groups – aside from National Society of Film Critics, which sanely still votes right after the new year – pretends that they don’t care about the one thing every one of them cares about because they think it legitimizes them… influencing Oscar.

And here is the bottom line. Not ONE of them has a measurable influence on the Oscar winners. (Just ask The Social Network.) The ONLY thing that the critics groups really do is to help narrow the field a bit… just as it is narrowed by media from September on.

New York Film Critic Circle has hit the Best Picture 3 times in the last 10 awards (LOTR, No Country, Hurt Locker). LA Film Critics Assoc. only once (Hurt Locker). And right in between, NBR’s 2 (Slumdog Millionaire and No Country).

And those Golden Globes? Well, they have at least 10 nominees to choose from each year and can test the Oscar waters right up until before the Oscar nominations are announced… and they have 4 in the last 10 (Gladiator, Chicago, Rings, and Slumdog).

Wow… what a powerful influence.

As for the rest of the media… oh for the days when the LA Times lied in print (without seeking comment from me) about MCN making a profit on a screening series and caused me to junk it because it wasn’t worth the trouble from them. Now they run a profitable screening series… and have a crap weekly pull-out section that was created only to give them something else to sell, and whole mediocre awards section online. Funny how quickly perspective changes when your company needs the cash flow.

And of course, we got magazines mailed to Academy members homes last year by both Deadline and The Wrap. Both were crap. Both were sent to lists acquired through non-legal channels from the trades.

Is the combined editorial of The Envelope and those two wannabe trades worth a read on a toilet? Does anyone care? They are about having a printed product that they hope will sit on coffee tables for more than a second to sell to advertisers. No one gives a damn whether the content is in gibberish, so long as they can convince themselves that Academy members will look at the ads.

Now Deadline wants to skip screenings altogether – as the others seek 5-figure paydays for doing screenings that cost under $5k to produce – and to do a ShoWest dog & pony event for the Oscars. Just what we need! A marketing event where Academy voters – handpicked by Nikki Finke, of course… because she, who has always despised the Oscars and had to be banned by The Academy last season, is now an expert – are shown clip reels and told how great these already-being-screened movies are. Wonderful! What a refreshing addition to the season! Bring on the t-shirts and key rings!

Called me old fashioned, but I seem to recall a time when if you wanted to be The Conversation Starter, you did it by interestingly, intelligently starting conversations… not by positioning your product more aggressively than the next guy.

So what is The Academy position on all of this?

Bascially… there is almost none. There are some very basic rules that The Academy lives by, but they don’t directly address much of any of the newfound ways of soliciting and boring Academy members in their homes.

And after having an extended conversation with representatives of The Academy, I have to say… I feel kind of bad for them. Because they don’t want to be the AEA (Awards Enforcement Administration). They want to do the thing that they do. They want to honor achievement as a massive industry group and make a load of money annually for the effort, which goes to fund all of their efforts, from the charitable to the self-indulgent.

The Academy doesn’t want to hear about your DVD delivery or your party or your publicity event or your media game or any of the myriad games that now run each year as more and more people try to mine the black gold of Oscar before and after the big show. They really don’t… unless you commit some kind of mortal Oscar sin.

I get it. I really do. This is your private party… as big as it is… it’s still about all the good stuff.

But not talking to your kids about sex or birth control is a bad way to avoid unwanted pregnancy in 2011.

Whether they want to be in this position or not, no one else can act as The Parent in this situation. No one else has any authority. And yes, if you had to test Academy authority over the media and others in a court of law, it might be ugly. But this it’s not about the law.

I would call on The Academy to take a strong public position. Don’t to try to come up with rules for every little thing. There are too many people who are too smart trying too hard to manipulate your little party. Besides, it’s not about the penalties.

The thing about Hollywood… for all the cheating… is that shame still works to stop people from doing the wrong thing. You just have to be willing to shame the shameful in public.

Demand that distributors inform The Academy of all events to which Academy members, including members who have crossover memberships, including the type of event, the number of people invited, whether food is served, the talent in attendance, and the locations… and publish the list. Let them have all the parties they want… but let it be a public issue.

Any film that is shown to any other awards organization and seeks eligibility for The Oscars must inform The Academy, with that information being made public.

I would publicize and penalize the media organizations that cross the line.

Any media organization that earns a profit any greater than 20% over the hard costs of its screening series screenings loses their media credentials.

Any media organization sending out materials directly to Academy members who cannot prove that the members have opted-in, loses their media credentials.

Any media organization privately polling or claiming to have a shielded Academy member authoring content – as opposed to commenting on a story – loses their media credentials.

I know The Academy doesn’t want to be enforcing these kinds of rules, but put them out there and watch them enforce themselves.

And on a more affirmative bent…

Rent the Fine Arts in Beverly Hills (or some other theater… maybe even multiple screens in multiple cities) and run five movies a day at a set price for each film from November 1 until the close of voting. Academy members have free access with open seating for other groups as is available. Say it costs $4k a day to rent and staff. And you charge studios $600 a screening… which is dirt cheap these days. It costs The Academy under $125k and Academy members have over 500 more opportunities to see movies on a big screen, the way they were meant to be seen. (Maybe you can make it up on concessions.) Run docs and foreign, etc.

Stop being so coy about DVDs and streaming of films to your membership. Get your hands dirty. It’s time to do the right thing for docs and foreign films and either open up DVD/streaming distribution or take the cost on yourselves and let all Academy members see and vote on these important films!

Lose the crazy Best Picture accounting method. Keep it simple. Members get a 1, 2, 3 vote. All votes are counted and weighted by their slot. Top Five are in. As many as 10 can be nominated, but each 5-10 nominee has to appear on at least 20% of all ballots. If there aren’t enough, there aren’t 10. Done. A film getting in because it’s on 20%+ of voters’ ballots as one of their 3 favorite of the year is no embarrassment.

So… all that said… everyone has a different place where they draw the line. The core notion for me is that The Academy has to step up and offer some structure. They need to keep track of what’s going on out there. And they have to tell their membership. Sunlight has always been the best disinfectant.

No solution, of course, will be perfect or 100% effective. But if The Academy worries about its position in the culture – and it does – they need to pull their necks out of the sand and to get more aggressive about what is okay by them… and what is not. Just saying “The Academy frowns on…” would have a shocking amount of power.

Because in the end, more than ever, The Academy is very important to a lot of people who make a living off of the award season. Time to step up.

(charts coming on Friday)

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4 Responses to “20 Weeks To Oscar: Line Dance”

  1. Danella Isaacs says:

    Very smart stuff, David. I hope someone at the Academy is paying attention.

  2. Proman says:

    Tintin for the win!

  3. movielocke says:

    Good suggestions I agree for the most part but this is almost too much inside baseball for me.

    since there’s no charts, just an idle, random speculation, what’re the chances that Anonymous will get a cinematography nomination this year and Anna Foerster becomes the very first female ever nominated in the category? Seems worth a DP thirty with her at least.

  4. Pete Rounds says:

    “…to protect, as best they can, their membership from being prayed upon by the vultures.” Come now. Vultures are not particularly spiritual creatures, and the latest studies show that those vultures who do appeal to a higher power for a desired outcome confine their prayers to things like comfortable weather, favorable company and, in some cases, a seat at the People’s Choice Awards. All these rumors of vultures praying for academy membership are empty speculation and should be heartily ignored.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon