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David Poland

By David Poland

20 Weeks To Oscar: Rush To Poor Judgment?

What is The Academy trying to do by shortening the nomination season by 10 days this year?

When I spoke to Ric Robertson about it late this afternoon, his only real argument for the shift was that by announcing the nominations 2 weeks earlier, it would make it easier for members to see the already nominated films and performances, as there will now be six weeks from nominations to the final voting.

DP: Doesn’t this put an addition emphasis on screeners over screenings?
RR: “There already seems to be a lot of emphasis on screeners.”

DP: Is this move, as some have speculated, a way of reigning in the wild west of Phase One (pre-nominations) last year?
RR: “That was not a part of our consideration.”

DP: So you found a way (electronic voting) to speed up voting, but you’ve made the time to see movies for which to vote weeks shorter.
RR: “Yes.”

DP: The only positive thing I can see in this is that it is a warm-up for moving the actual show much earlier next year.
RR: “Thank you for trying to find one good thing to think about this. I try not to speculate on what may happen in 2014. There has not been any discussion to move the show earlier in 2014. That wasn’t a factor in the decision.”

DP: By announcing this now, The Academy kind of left the studios that scheduled movies in December flat-footed.
RR: “There are only about a dozen movies being released after (Dec 17) and we expect that they will be screened earlier and be available to members.”

RR: “We think it will work.”

I do not. I think it is the dumbing down of The Academy and a continuation of a slow disintegration of standards that is the only thing that keep The Academy Awards from being The People’s Choice Awards.

It may not seem like much, but this is a massive change for the movies and the people who work on them. Essentially, The Academy brain trust has hamstrung the idea of screenings as a primary way of reaching Academy voters for any of the December movies, shifting the emphasis even more intensely onto screeners watched over the holiday break.

Publicists have been SCREAMING for years that a shorter Oscar season means it will be harder to get voters to see movies. So The Academy cooled its heels on that idea. But at the same time, it has shortened the Academy season in the most severe way imaginable. The season, for all but about 18 movies (not counting the docs and shorts) completely ends on January 3.

But January 3 is not really the key date. Go back to December 21, 10 days before the end of the year. That’s when Academy members will start leaving Los Angeles and New York and London in droves for the holidays (Christmas Day is on the following Tuesday.)

But you can go even further back in this bizarro scheduling choice. Academy voting actually begins, ahem, on December 17. And it’s not just ballots going in the mail this year. With new online voting, Academy members can actually register their nominating votes on December 17.

Last year, they mailed ballots out on December 26. This was not intended to induce voting on Dec 27, but to get ballots there by January 1, allowing all the movies that are qualifying to open and for members to use the holiday to catch up on as many movies as possible. This year, you will be able to vote before many of the contending movies are even released.

Now, The Academy is not the biggest offender here. The Screen Actors Guild is CLOSING their voting on Dec 10, the same date that HFPA closes for The Golden Globes. At least HFPA gives you until Dec 5 to show your movie. SAG sends out nominating ballots on November 21. That’s even sillier than the NYFCC idiocy of picking nominees on November 29 last year.

But back to The Academy, which is still the only award that really matters…

What’s the rush?

They’ve cut weeks out of the nominating process and left the old show sitting at the same old dock, at the end of February. There is now a 6-week lag time between nominations and the awards. All the other awards shows that AMPAS seems anxious to get out before will be handing out trophies in full bloom for weeks… and weeks… and weeks… before everyone is supposed to get excited about the same people who have already taken home multiple awards in multiple gowns over a 6-week period finally get The Big One.

And it is more important and it is more exciting… but not only does it remain the very best steak on earth that you’re being asked to consume after eating three pretty good steaks a day for over a month, but by undermining the membership’s ability to watch all the contending films at all, and especially on a theatrical screen, it undermines the entire film industry and the legitimacy of the award itself. It’s not about the movies. It’s about some weird game being played at The Academy to make change after change for no apparent reason with no apparent positive outcome.

Yes, as Ric Robertson and freelance Academy employee Pete Hammond (he writes the Honorary show for them in addition to working for Deadline and other gigs) notes, this does expand the post-nomination viewing period for voters by a couple of weeks. This means, they now can see 8 or 9 BP movies and another 6 or 7 movies with nods in other categories they care about, over a 6-week period. They no longer have to worry about the 30 or 40 other movies that couldn’t find enough eyeballs before Dec 21 and might have been nominated had only enough members had an opportunity to see the work.

Great. More films with big awards marketing budgets and the top consultants and you smaller underdogs can just go screw yourselves now.

This makes me and those like me a lot more powerful. It also makes scumbag bottom-feeders like Carlos de Abreu more powerful because it makes a presence in October infinitely more important. Everyone who separates wheat from chaff, no matter how poorly or with what ulterior motives—or even with the best of skill and motive—is now in an enhanced position.

I wonder whether Pete Hammond, who was one of the great proponents of the nomination of Demián Bichir last year would be bothered if he realized that Demián’s remarkable underdog nomination, driven by his personal charisma and hard work as much as it was by his excellent performance, would be much less likely to happen under this new timetable. Not only does Demián do fewer screenings and meet fewer people, but the crunch for bigger names doing screenings in late November and early December (imagine Brad Pitt’s late push for Moneyball moved up 6 weeks) would make it a lot harder to get voters to show up for Demián’s screenings.

Keep in mind… all those groups that have used The Academy Awards as a springboard to build their own franchises in December and January, with the exception of SAG, are much, much smaller than the near-6000 member Academy. So getting 350 members of BFCA or 85 members of HFPA or 40 critics from one of the critics groups in to see a movie or to watch a screener is quite a different thing than enticing enough of the 5800 or so Academy members to get 600+ votes to get a nomination. Even the SAG Nominating Committee, of about 2200 actors, offers a lesser and more focused challenge.

I thought really hard, looking for a single positive thing about January 3 becoming the end of Oscar voting. I couldn’t think of one. The more I thought, the worse the idea seemed. So then I started calling around… and no one else could come up with a good rationale for the choice by The Academy, much less a positive thing to say about it.

The one thing that people came up with was that The Academy was trying to cut down on the December shenanigans of last year’s Phase One by shortening the window. The rules are much more strict in Phase 2 (post-nominations). But wait… how did we get the shenanigans of last year?

Yes! They were created by The Academy’s new leadership, which opened up the rules and allowed all kinds of member solicitation that had been considered against the rules… until last year. And even when some clearly went beyond last year’s lax rules as they were laid out by the new administration, The Academy chose to look the other way, especially when media outlets were breaking those rules by disguising sponsored marketing events without any screenings by serving a meal at said events.

But recall the top of this piece… The Academy, via Ric Robertson, says this was not an issue. So expect the same shenanigans writ even larger.

Things were a mess last season. And now, this season is on the way to being a bigger mess. And so far, 100% self-inflicted.

The gold standard—a group of industry professionals the vast majority of whom are not in the business of seeing 125+ movies a year—is now voting for the best of the year two weeks before the end of the year. These pros are forced into an even greater reliance on screeners before nominations because they can only see so many movies on the big screen and the opportunity to see films in late December and early January has been compromised severely. And The Academy, which assumes that there won’t be many problems with their membership voting online, is introducing new technology while shortening the window in which it might be used and/or worked around in the case of people having trouble using it. (I guess it’s easier than setting the time on a VCR.)

The personal irony for me is intense. I believe in online voting. I believe firmly that an early Oscar show will improve ratings and status and online voting makes that more possible. But it is hard to imagine a worse way of implementing this new system. It is hard to think of something sadder than The Academy now joining the ranks of awards-givers who have disregarded the calendar for expedience… the mortal enemy of thoughtful consideration.

But mostly, I worry for the movies. Especially the really good movies. The complex movies. The indie movies. The movies that need more than a second to sink in. I love the 10 nominations thing—something else they f-ed up last year for no apparent good reason except being able to say they did—because it celebrates films that are not as easy or obvious or well-funded. Cynics expected big action blockbusters to get nominated. But it was Malick and Winter’s Bone and A Serious Man and great animation like UP that got worldwide recognition.

That is less likely today. And that is sad. And still the big question… WHY?

I appreciate that Ric Robertson represents a big organization and that some people in that organization are afraid to take public responsibility for the choices they push and inflict on the membership and industry. But I cannot agree that giving members six full weeks to see what probably comes down to fewer than 10 films (as they will have seen some of the titles before nominations, obviously) at the cost of opportunity for dozens of titles is a remotely reasonable decision. No. I hope to God he’s lying and that there is some secret endgame. Because if there isn’t…

I don’t want to think any more about it today.

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4 Responses to “20 Weeks To Oscar: Rush To Poor Judgment?”

  1. Hallick says:

    “But you can go even further back in this bizarro scheduling choice. Academy voting actually begins, ahem, on December 17. And it’s not just ballots going in the mail this year. With new online voting, Academy members can actually register their nominating votes on December 17.”

    This one item seems (emphasizing “seems” here) easy to fix. Why on Earth exactly can’t they just block any online votes until January 1st?

  2. I think it’s a move toward a shorter window altogether, and painful though it may be at first, necessary. Like ripping off a band-aid.

  3. But by the way, January 15 was the previously announced date. I remember it being a big deal because it came outside the Sundance frame. So it’s been set up as early for a little while now.

  4. Krillian says:

    Will these new rules prevent something unholy like Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close from getting nominated again?

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