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David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

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 Jan 3 this year.

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 weeks 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 3 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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9 Responses to “20 Weeks To Oscar: Rush To Poor Judgment?”

  1. Ryan says:

    Did you have to get quote approval for this article?

  2. David Poland says:

    I did not. But to be honest, when I had the conversation with Ric, less than 30 minutes before I hit “publish,” I didn’t take a single note, as I didn’t expect the tone of the conversation to be what it was.

    After the call, I decided to simply quote him, rather than to build “The Academy said” into the story. So I did send him the quotes because I wanted to make 100% sure that he didn’t feel like I was misrepresenting him in any way. And he did not.

    I don’t believe in quote approval for any news story, as a rule. But this is an opinion piece and my opinion is rather strong, even harsh. The passive tone, as I see it, of Ric’s answers speaks to the oddly passive position that The Academy has taken with the franchise in the last couple of years. They keep coming up with new, bad ideas while not caring to enforce the respectfulness that has kept this the top franchise in awards for decades. So I have a bias in how I remember what he said back to me and I didn’t want to take any chance in letting that creep in to how I quoted the man. It would be unfair. So I let him be my fact-checker.

    Had he denied saying something, then we would have a potential problem. But if he said, “those two thoughts didn’t really go together and it makes me sound like I am saying something I didn’t mean to say,” I would be receptive, assuming that I remembered it in a reasonably similar way.

    I will also say that I have discussed shooting documentary footage at movie media events and would be willing to allow some oversight from those on camera who are not the “target” of a doc piece. It’s a balancing act between access, creating the comfort that allows for relative honesty, and being a pursuer of fact.

    I have never given anyone approval over content in a DP/30 interview. And one of the reasons we run 30 minutes uncut is to keep everything clean and fair. I don’t edit the talent into seeming this way or that. They have 100% control of themselves during the conversation. I think the viewers can judge sincerity for themselves when you have someone on camera, uncut, for that long. There is, however, a lot of great stuff after camera cuts… but that is off-the-record and stays off-the-record.

  3. Ryan says:

    Sounds fair enough. Just one question:

    “Had he denied saying something, then we would have a potential problem. But if he said, “those two thoughts didn’t really go together and it makes me sound like I am saying something I didn’t mean to say,” I would be receptive, assuming that I remembered it in a reasonably similar way.”

    If you didn’t have notes to back it up, would you still run it?

  4. Ryan says:

    Another quick question-do you think he would have said the same things is you had a notebook out? Sometimes it seems like people have no idea that they’re being heard, or where it’s going to go. I remember attending a lecture by Jack Valenti in DC to the Washington Internship Center groups (2003) and being pretty shocked at what he was willing to say to a group of ~200-300 people about individuals in Hollywood in his response to questions. Today, that would be all over Facebook and Twitter immediately.

  5. David Poland says:

    The conversation, me sending him the quotes and me publishing were all within an hour. The only possible issue with the quotes would be very subtle usage, not anything factual.

    As I said before, if he felt I was creating a false tone by remembering his wording a certain way, I would consider that seriously. Had he claimed that he hadn’t said that Phase One hyper-promotion was not a consideration, that would have been a lie and I would not remove the quote to accommodate a reconsidered angle.

    But again, sending the quotes here was a very, very rare event of circumstance and respect for a guy who gave me almost nothing worth printing.

    If I were trying to bury him, i would have played the game that many journos do and mocked him with a lot of “but The Academy tried to avoid the issue by claiming…” But that would have been unfair and disrespectful.

    I’m sure they think I am an asshole regarding this already. They’ve gotten the press to jump through this hoop, pretty much, with people terrified about not being credentialed. All the stories are about the 10th, not the insanity of the 3rd… the 2 extra weeks to see a few movies, not the two fewer weeks to see a lot I movies, etc.

    So….

  6. David Poland says:

    Yes. I think Ric said exactly what he wanted to say. And I didn’t report the tone I felt was between the lines because my opinion of what his tone meant is really not needed.

  7. movielocke says:

    I thought it was pretty well known that the Academy changed the rules last year to take away the BP power of the animation bloc? They didn’t want an animated film nominated every year so they just kicked those folks right back to their ghetto.

    I don’t get the consternation, there will still be screenings pre nomination and screenings post nomination, the key now is to get the academy membership into Amour screenings–for example–between the Thanksgiving and Dec 17 window.

    The only year where screeners haven’t been a factor was the year Return of the King won, it’s an interesting thought experiment, did RotK sweep because everyone in the academy was forced to watch it on a big screen or did it sweep solely because it was the climax of three years of awards good will? I think it’s a combo, but maybe a film like Master and Commander wouldn’t have done as well with the academy if there hadn’t been a screener ban that year.

    Otherwise, screeners are more important than screenings every year since DVD took over from VHS.

    Also, it looks like Spielberg and co completely knew about this decision months in advance, because their move to early Nov is extremely astute and well informed now.

  8. David Poland says:

    I guess you are on Team Let Them Vote In November, Movielocke.

    The consternation is simple. The Academy is legitimized by three things; where its membership has worked, the size of its membership, and a lack of rushing/jostling/gimmicking.

    Right now, it’s on the road to being another devalued institution… but unlike media, it’s not a change that’s being forced.

    And none of the studios knew. The election had more to do with the move than the awards race.

  9. movielocke says:

    I still don’t see it, if I’m reading you correctly, your buried lede is that you think it is wrong to open voting before academy members go on winter hiatus because winter hiatus is when the majority of academy members watch the majority of their screeners. Thus if voting is opened earlier, they’ll have not yet watched the bottom-of-the-barrel screeners they would have taken with them on vacation for hiatus. The risk is they might vote early when they are more likely to be less informed of the lower profile films.

    That’s the complaint right, that they are allowed to vote before they take a vacation, and thus vote only based on early screenings, films already released, and early screeners they might have found time for?

    At best I can see this negatively effects what, four films? The Impossible, Quartet, Amour and Promised Land, and those teams now know they have to put extra effort into grabbing eyeballs. Some/All of them will probably move up an LA release to share with the Hobbit on Dec 14th and reap the rewards of all the rave reviews the weekend before nominating goes live. The other films that have already released have their own strategies in place for getting eyeballs-to-disc or asses in seats, and this bump up pretty much effects every other film’s hiatus strategy equally.

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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