MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

10 Reasons Why The Academy Moving To January Makes Perfect Sense

It’s simple. A shorter award season will cost me money. A lot of money.

I should be rooting against it.

But I have been saying for years that this is the only way to save the dominance of the show and the kind of contract that The Academy has had with ABC for all these years.

It is not going to turn The Oscars into a bigger event than the Super Bowl. But in 2010, waiting 10 weeks to celebrate what happened months earlier is not what draws a crowd. The Oscars don’t have to become a Twitter event… keep your acceptance speeches to 140 characters or leas… but people have their year-end holidays, they get back to work, they hear about nominations and feel compelled to check out some movies… and then, they want to know The Answers.

And I’ll just have to figure out a way to make some more money some other way.

The “People Can’t See The Movies” Argument Is Bunk
This was an issue, literally, 15 years ago, before screeners had proliferated. Since then, consultants have maintained this fallacy, in part because it is, indeed, difficult to get a lower profile movie watched. But also because a shorter season means fewer weeks of pay at super Oscar pricing.

Marketing to 6000 people can be as challenging as marketing to 60 million. Some of our very best and very brightest are focused on awards season. They do great work. They make a lot of their annual nut. Now the work will be a little harder. Great. Raise prices a little, even as you lose a month of work. If they are smart enough to do this work, they are smart enough to make this work.

With Fewer Than 5 Exceptions A Year, The December Movies Are Screening Before Thanksgiving

2010 may be the most extreme case for “can’t get it seen” not being real. Only two films – literally, two – have any real chance of screening for the first time in the first week of December, getting in just under the wire for critics awards and the Globes. Those are True Grit and Jim Brooks’ How Do You Know (as in, “How do we know this will even still be the title of this film come December?”) There certainly may be years in which more films are not ready to be seen in late November. But it’s been rarer and rarer.

You Can’t Expect The Academy To Nominate The Biggest Hits To Get Ratings
It’s the great irony of this conversation. People want to argue that The Academy is not small minded enough to vote based on potential ratings. And the the same time, they want to argue that The Academy needs to save itself by finding a way to nominate bigger movies.

Last year was the year that makes the whole conversation moot. Of the movies that many see as “second five” choices in the first modern era 10 Best Picture race, one could argue that two commercial successes made it into the group – The Blind Side and District 9 – but one would have to admit that at least two of the other three were from among the three films that had grossed under $13 million before being nominated (The Hurt Locker, An Education, A Serious Man). No Hangover or Trek.

The 10 film field created opportunity and Academy members expressed themselves. Not only didn’t they turn into the PGA, the PGA acted a lot more like the Academy than a group interested in revenues might have been expected to act.

The Culture Of Over-Familiarity Is The Oscars Biggest Foe
People talk about why the Oscar viewing is less passionate than it once was. It’s not about the nominees. It’s not about the show… since no one knows whether the show will be any good until they watch it.

It’s the culture. Oscar is king. But you now get week after week of dressed up celebrities/nominees, award after award, months of time passed since most of the nominees were relevant to viewers, and a year-end award given months after the year is over. Oscar remains special to a lot of people. And to the people who have stopped caring, it’s just another damned show.

Admit it, if only to yourself… seeing the dress that Sandra Bullock was wearing on the big night just isn’t as interesting as it used to be. It’s still a princess moment, but unless the Globes and others are going to start asking talent to show up in jeans and t-shirts, it’s the fifth princess moment of the month.

Oscar is Inside Baseball. Deal with it.
Carey Mulligan’s career was changed dramatically by last year’s awards season. Great. She still can’t open a movie, whether Never Let Me Go or Wall Street 2. And that’s fine. She’s brilliant and deserves another nomination (at least) for NLMG. But it’s not a coronation like it once was perceived as being. Hillary Swank has two statues on the shelf and also can’t open a movie.

There is Hollywood royalty that transcends Oscar night. And there are great actors who get to be a part of Oscar night. And like a movie being good vs a movie being well marketed, they are separate issues. And I don’t think that’s bad, unless you need to keep the imaginary idea going.

Rather Than Positioning It As Desperate, Digital Delivery Of “Screeners” Is The Best Thing Ever, For Everyone

It’s going to happen. It’s already happening, really.

I had to see a movie for an interview a few weeks ago. There were no scheduled screenings. Setting one up for me would have cost more than $1000. So I was sent onto the distributor’s internet digital delivery system, given a password or three, and watched the movie on my 27″ computer screen. My name was right in the middle of the screen, which was unfortunate. But I saw and enjoyed the film.

Less than two weeks ago, a set top box that would privately stream to people’s television set with some intense security was announced, at $200 a box, cheaper than Cinea. Huzzah.

This is a great moment for The Academy. For the first time, they could have a system that avoids all the crap around DVD distribution. Studios could put their films into the system whenever they so chose and wouldn’t have to spend so much on DVD production and distribution. Nor would they ever have to wait around for overly busy DVD reproduction houses to get their discs ready. Plus, they could offer HD without incurring greater expenses.

But even better, it could FINALLY revolutionize the doc and foreign film categories. For years, The Academy has refused to allow voters to see films on DVD in these categories, claiming that DVD distribution with unfairly penalize the smaller, lower budgeted projects. If this system – or a competing one – works, that is over and every Academy voter could be given access to all the nominated films and be allowed to vote the same way they do for all the other categories. Hallelujah!

Piracy is not a central issue anymore. Every year, screeners end up on the web. And last year, more than half the screeners showed up on the doorstep without a need for signature. Stop hiding behind piracy and embrace this much of the future. Every film should be seen on a screen. But those aren’t the rules. So what could be better than a high quality digital library that sits by the TV for 3 months or so, with EVERYTHING you could want to see. Shorts, Docs, Foreign Language… a grand home theater of the best of the year and hell, everything else that studios want to offer up as well.

Nirvana. (At least for those of us who can score boxes.)

Sweeps Months Have Become Less And Less Relevant
One of the least noted reasons for the date of Oscar has been that February was a “sweeps month” for the networks. It was always a rather silly notion that advertisers paid for ads in non-sweeps periods at prices set by sweeps stunts, like The Oscars. Welcome to the new millennium of television.

Oscar can still be “The Super Bowl for Women” before the Super Bowl as well as it could after. People advertise on American Idol every single week.

Oscar Is Not About Being A Marketing Slingshot
Harvey Weinstein and his team brilliantly used late January Oscar nominations to slingshot marketing for their movies. This method has already dissipated. The only movie to add as much as 20% to their gross post-nomination last year was An Education. Slumdog did most of its business post-nomination the year before, but that was after Searchlight intentionally slowed the film down to wait for the nods. The Reader was a classic late entry by The Weinsteins.

But it’s not The Academy’s job to market your late season movie… even if great minds have figured out how to use the slingshot. You know what? They’ll figure out another angle when presented with an earlier show.

The Show Might Be Better If There Is Less Time To Obsess On Details
Pretty basic. Producers have argued that the show is too complex to put together over a couple of weeks post-nominations. But it’s Glengarry territory…

“The great fucks that you may have had. What do you remember about them?… It’s probably not the orgasm. Some broads, forearms on your neck, something her eyes did. There was a sound she made…or, me, lying, in the, I’ll tell you: me lying in bed; the next day she brought me café au lait. She gives me a cigarette, my balls feel like concrete. Eh?”

People remember the moments that are not the big planned moments. The reason they mock the musical numbers is that they feel false. They are planned, canned moments on an evening of unveiled mysteries. “The Envelope, please.”

The more it’s a show in the barn, the more people will enjoy the human drama.

The Academy Awards Have Become The DVD Release Of A Big Hit Movie
It’s really simple. We rev the engines for week after week after week, starting with the commercial releases of all of these movies. And then, we hear about Globes noms, Critics groups, Top Tens, BFCA, The Guilds, The Globes, The Guild Events, SAG, The Super Bowl, and finally… we need to get excited all over again for Oscar. Oy.

There is a reason why the NFL has made the Pro Bowl part of the Super Bowl processional. After the big game, it was just like spring training… and the Super Bowl players didn’t show up anyway.

The reason I don’t think saving on marketing should mean day-n-date Home Entertainment for movies is that narrowing the window certainly will include a lot of cannibalization of a market the industry needs, theatrical distribution. But for Oscar, the only benefit of the delay is accrued to other organizations. If all of the money for theatrical distribution went to the theaters or the actors or somewhere other than paying for the cost of making and marketing the movie -aside from the 45% paid to theaters – there would be no theatrical, period. The industry would focus only on home distribution without any concern about how this affected the overall potential gross of a film in all markets. And indeed, total gross would be irrelevant to the industry’s bottom line under those circumstances.

The fact that The Oscars have retained as much audience as it has is a tribute to its power and history. But in the new media world, letting everyone else ride their wake, draining the perceived value of their award, is not good business.

Time to move into the modern world. And even if the ratings increase is marginal, know that without the move, there would be a steady, unstoppable decrease. The Oscars would never be lower rated than The Golden Globes. But year after year, being last into the field will eat away at the separation. And if 6000 industry voters is ever close to being seen as equal to 88 little qualified individuals who are the fatted calves of the award season just because Dick Clark produces an entertaining award show, it will be a true embarrassment.

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4 Responses to “10 Reasons Why The Academy Moving To January Makes Perfect Sense”

  1. Bob Burns says:

    February is the most tedious month of the year for Oscarwatchers, IMO. Full of repetitive, neurotic commentary from otherwise sensible observers.

    Fact is that movies are going the way of the novel in their cultural prominence. There used to be important novels/authors just like there used to be important movies – art events that at least felt like they had wide impact. The Oscars will never have the position in society they once held and the grand months long Oscar campaigns are as dead and gone as the old studio system.

  2. Keil Shults says:

    Oscar has always been big. It’s the films that got small.

    Or not.

    I don’t mind the awards airing sooner, as long as I’ve had a fair chance to see all the Best Pic nominees beforehand. I realize people in a place like Lake City, CO or Premont, TX aren’t going to be able to see films like Black Swan or possibly even The Social Network unless they make a lengthy drive to the nearest city with a respectable multiplex. But if I’m living in a city of 120,000 people that’s also a mere 25 minutes from Dallas area arthouse theaters and there are still some nominees that haven’t screened in the area, that would be a real shame. I know it’s most important for the voters to see all the films before casting their ballot, but let’s not forget about the people at home. We can’t get too excited about the Oscars if we haven’t had a chance to see the nominees. And if we’re not excited, we may start tuning out (okay, I never will, but I’ve been a cinephile since birth).

  3. Sam says:

    Question: How would a move to January affect the Christmas weekend release slot?

    Even as things stand, the more insidious of the precursor awards miss things you’d swear they’d cater to if only they’d been able to see the films in time. Prime example: Does anyone really think that both the NBR and the AFI would have omitted Avatar from their Top 10 list if they’d known it was going to be the mammoth box office hit that it became? They both missed it for the simple reason that they hadn’t been able to see it yet by the time they announced their award winners.

    But nobody really markets a movie to the NBR or the AFI, except insofar as these awards bodies might be perceived (correctly or otherwise) as a possible path to Oscar.

    If the Oscars themselves move up, might we then see distributors changing their approach to Christmas weekend? I suspect there will be fewer movies (like True Grit this year) kept secret until Christmas. Certainly the weekend will remain a favorite to open wide on, but how many will forego the early screenings?

    Moreover, the *types* of movies opening wide on Christmas would probably change, too. If a marketing department for some film thinks its movie’s best path to Oscar is through its public appeal (as was the case with Avatar), they aren’t going to wait till Christmas to send it out.

    And, of course, those movies travelling the precursor circuit will move up as well. Ultimately I don’t think we’re really going to see a shortened awards season so much as a shifted one.

  4. Keil Shults says:

    I’m just waiting for Eastwood to pull a surprise Civil War trilogy out of his spleen on Black Friday.


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“But okay, I promise you now that if I ever retire again, I’m going to ensure that I can’t walk it back. I’ll post a series of the most disgusting, offensive, outrageous statements you can ever imagine. That way it will be impossible for me to ever be employed again. No one is going to take my calls. No one is going to want to be seen with me. Oh, it will be scorched earth. I will have torched everything. I’m going to flame out in the most legendary fashion.”
~ Steven Soderbergh

I feel strongly connected to young cinephile culture. The thing about filmmaking—and cinephilia—is that you can’t keep hanging out with your own age group as you get older. They drop off, move somewhere. You can’t put together a crew of sixty-somethings. It’s the same for cinephilia: my original set of cinephile friends are watching DVDs at home or delving into 1958 episodes of ‘Gunsmoke,’ something like that. The people who are out there tend to be young, and I happen to be doing the same thing still, so it’s natural that I move in their circles.

In terms of the filmmaking, there was a gear shift: my first movies focused on people around my age, and I followed them for three films. Until The Unspeakable Act, I was using the same actors, not because of an affinity for people at a specific age, but because of my affinity for the actors. I like to work with actors a second time, especially if I don’t feel confident casting a new film. But The Unspeakable Act was a different script, and I had to cast all new people. Even for the older roles, I couldn’t get the people I’d worked with before. But when it was over, the same thing happened: I wanted to work with Tallie again in the worst way, and I started the process all over again.

I think Rohmer did something similar around the time of Perceval and Catherine de HeilbronnHe developed new groups of people that he liked to work with. These gear shifts are natural. Even if you want to follow certain actors to the end of their life (which I kind of do) the variety of ideas that you generate makes it necessary to change. And once you’ve made the change, you’ve got all these new people around.”
~ Dan Sallitt