Academy Makes Sweeping Rule Changes

Pete Hammond is Deadline’s awards columnist. This story first appeared in the Oct. 31 issue of AwardsLine.

The times—and rules—they are a-changin’ for this year’s Oscar race. Every year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences refines the rules in an effort to keep the campaigning fair and maintain the integrity of the industry’s highest honor. But this year will debut some of the most sweeping changes Oscar has seen in decades.

Academy members will be voting electronically for the first time, which will allow a tightened schedule for determining nominations and an earlier nominee announcement. In addition, both the song and documentary feature categories received their own tuneups. The aggressive moves are an effort to make the nominees matter even more.

The earlier schedule means the eagerly anticipated nomination announcement will happen two weeks earlier than usual, on Jan. 10. And the period in which nominating ballots will be available is smack dab in the heart of the holiday season, Dec. 17-Jan. 2. Although the actual process of casting a ballot will be easier for members with laptops or iPads, the real challenge is the truncated time period that members will now have to see all the movies, particularly those released in December.

In fact, on the very day the Academy announced this seismic change, Universal moved the release date of its big Oscar hopeful, Les Miserables, from Dec. 14 to Christmas Day, seemingly giving voters less time to see the film. However, the consultant I spoke with didn’t seem concerned.

“We will begin screening heavily at the end of November,” the consultant says. “There is such want-to-see on this movie within the Academy I don’t believe we will have any problem getting members in on time to consider it. But you have to remember that, first and foremost, the studio is most interested in picking the date that works in the best interest of the film’s boxoffice prospects. And Dec. 25, right in the heart of the holiday (season), seemed a perfect choice.”

Academy President Hawk Koch told me all the major guilds—PGA, DGA, WGA, and SAG—seem to have no problem getting their members to see the movies early and get their nominations out in early January. He points out there are an enormous number of Academy members who are also members of those guilds, and he doesn’t anticipate the earlier dates will be that big of a deal to overcome for most diligent members. Koch also points out that the new dates give more time for voters and audiences to see the actual nominees because the period between nominations and Oscars is now six weeks instead of four.

Beyond the new rules for balloting, the biggest individual change in any of the branches came from the documentary peer group, which has radical new rules governing how a doc qualifies and what it has to do to meet the new requirements. Spearheaded by Academy Governor Michael Moore, the changes would seem to favor more commercially viable and better-known docs (the kind he makes), and put the kibosh on glorified TV docs of the sort HBO specializes in. Instead of relying on four smaller committees of branch members to each view 12 or more docs and assign a score, the entire branch will now use a preferential voting system (the same used to choose best picture) in order to create a shortlist of 15 titles, and later five nominees. All Academy members who have seen all five nominees will choose the winner. In terms of qualifying, a doc must play seven days in a theater in Los Angeles and New York for at least two shows a day between noon and 10 p.m., be clearly advertised in three major newspapers in the area, and even more significantly, it must be reviewed by a legitimate critic in either the Los Angeles Times or New York Times. Previously, films could qualify by sneaking in unadvertised runs that were so stealth critics were never informed the film was playing. One reason some distributors used this method was so they could qualify the doc without upsetting any future distribution plans.

Already the new rules have had the effect of scaring off potential contenders this year. Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell was one of the biggest hits at the Venice, Telluride, and Toronto film festivals, and it was quickly snapped up by Roadside Attractions. It would seem natural to capitalize on the glowing reviews and positive audience reaction and qualify it for this year’s doc race, the deadline for which was Sept. 24. However, a top Roadside executive told me that with the new rules, a quick, higher-profile Oscar-qualifying run could take all the air out of a regular release, and it was just too risky a strategy for their new acquisition.

Polley will just have to wait until next year, but by then the rules might have completely changed again. Controversy crept into the process when members complained they had too many films to watch (80 were dumped on the committee in October alone, with only a month to see them all) after a record number of entries managed to qualify, some by finding clever ways around the rules. Moore vows to jettison all special rules and just let the doc filmmakers play like the rest of the Academy peer groups, letting the best somehow rise to the top. Or so he hopes.

There was another big change in the song category, although in terms of Oscar history, it really is a change going back to the way it used to be. Once again, five nominees will be chosen instead of the recent practice of a variable number of zero to five nominated songs, which depended on a complicated voting system. Last year, only two nominees were chosen and neither was performed on the Oscar show, leading to an outcry from many members of the music branch. The number of eligible songwriters has also been amended to include the possibility of a fourth tunesmith in “rare and extraordinary circumstances.”

There were some other minor housecleaning changes in several other categories. First, for foreign-language film—which actually is in need of a much bigger overhaul in the way eligible films are submitted and selected—movies can be shown at the Academy in 35mm or DCP, but are no longer required to be exhibited in those formats in their home countries. Second, the makeup category is now known as the makeup and hairstyling award, and during the nominations process all branch members who have seen the seven shortlisted titles will receive ballots to pick their top three finalists. And finally, the five visual-effects nominees will be chosen from 10 contenders selected by the Branch Executive Committee by secret ballot (previously it could be anywhere from seven to 10).

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