First Year Of Online Voting Was Rocky For Academy

Pete Hammond is Deadline’s awards columnist. This article appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of AwardsLine.

This year the big question hasn’t been exactly who Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members are going to vote for, it has been instead whether they can figure out how to vote at all.

With the advent of online voting for the first time in Academy history, the path during the nomination balloting hasn’t been a smooth one for many voters. Some found that the Academy’s security steps, necessary to avoid hackers, have also kept voters out, forcing them to make repeated attempts at getting their ballot completed.

Poll_positionAlthough all the guilds and other voting groups have moved full force into the world of online voting, the Academy went through a slow, methodical process before finally settling on Everyone Counts, a company known for working with the U.S. government in a similar capacity. Unlike most industry groups, the Academy is a prime target for infiltration by cyber terrorists who would like nothing more than to gain access to vote totals and embarrass the high-profile Oscar process, which in 85 years has never been compromised.

But keeping voting hacker-proof caused its own set of issues, when in November the Academy had to extend its registration period after member complaints. After that, AMPAS also backed down and agreed to send an old-fashioned paper ballot to any member who had paid their dues but hadn’t bothered or didn’t know how to register for online voting. All along, the Academy offered paper ballots as an alternative but initially had required a one-time registration for those as well—something longtime members used to getting ballots in the mail automatically didn’t realize.

Many voters said they were able to vote online with no problems, but a large and very vocal group complained that they were locked out of the system and had to spend valuable time trying to vote over the course of two or three days.

Although the Academy sent out repeated email reminders, provided a ’round-the-clock phone number for member support, and set up kiosks in the lobby of its Beverly Hills headquarters, some members experienced great frustration. However, as president Hawk Koch told me on the morning of the Oscar nominations, the turnout was still the largest the Academy had seen for nominations in several years. But he also said nothing was perfect on a first try. And before final voting began on Feb. 8 (ballots are due back on Feb. 19), the Academy sent members a detailed—some might say too complex—guidebook on how to accomplish online voting. The Academy also sent out emails offering the option of a paper ballot to anyone who wants one. From my admittedly nonscientific sample survey, a lot of members took them up on the offer by the deadline of Feb. 1.

For those determined to enter the brave new world of electronic Oscar voting, the Academy told them they will need four things: 1) A voter identification number; 2) A voting password (not to be confused with their member password and one that must contain a mix of letters, numbers, and a special character); 3) A security code; and 4) A telephone where voters will receive their special code by text after entering their VIN and password.

The Academy’s E Voter Guide then takes the voter step by step into how to actually cast their ballot once they have successfully logged into the system in the first place. Some members told me it took them two or three tries after getting locked out for a 24-hour period to actually finish the task during nominations. If you try a password too many times, and it doesn’t work, you have to call the Academy support line to get a new one.

Certainly Academy officials, who took great care before embarking on this new adventure for Oscar, are hoping this will get easier with time. It took the Screen Actors Guild seven years before they were comfortable that it was running smoothly enough to eliminate paper ballots. The Academy is dealing with a membership that might not be so tech savvy. But for an organization that is such a tempting target for hackers, it is not an easy task, and the option of paper ballots will probably be around for a long time. “Please tell them, just send me a paper ballot. I’m begging,” one Oscar-nominated longtime member told me.

The bottom line is, if you want to vote, you will be able to vote. “What I can say is, we will not jeopardize the integrity of the Oscar ballot. We will make sure that everybody can vote,” Koch told me.

Moments In Oscar History, Part 1: The Producers

In honor of the 85th Academy Awards, AwardsLine is spotlighting memorable moments and winners from the last eight decades. This is Part 1: The Producers. Part 2 will be Actors & Actresses; Part 3 will be The Directors.

David O. SelznickDavid O. Selznick, 1940: The 12th Academy Awards took place at the Ambassador Hotel on Feb. 29, 1940, honoring a year that produced some of the most enduring films in history. Not only did David O. Selznick’s Gone With the Wind earn a recordbreaking eight statuettes—including picture, director for Victor Fleming, and actress for Vivien Leigh—but other well-known classics enjoyed nominations, including Dark Victory, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, and The Wizard of Oz. Frank Capra was both a nominee and director of the show, having sold the rights to a documentary of the proceedings to Warner Bros. Bob Hope hosted for the first time, although the Los Angeles Times eliminated some of the suspense by printing the winners in its evening edition, which attendees could read on the way to the ceremony. Robert Donat earned a best actor award for Goodbye, Mr. Chips.

“Paramount executive Y. Frank Freeman was called upon to bestow the best picture award. Since there was no longer any question as to what was going to win, Freeman kidded, ‘The only reason I was called upon to give this honor is because I have a Southern accent.’ Handing Selznick the award, Freeman drawled, ‘I present this trophy to you, David Selznick. But David, I never saw so many soldiers as were used in Gone With the Wind. Believe me, if the Confederate Army had that many, we would have licked you damn Yankees.’”

–Excerpt from Inside Oscar (Damien Bona, Ballantine Books, 1996) detailing David O. Selznick’s best picture Oscar acceptance for Gone With the Wind, which went through two directors—George Cukor and Sam Wood—prior to Victor Fleming.

Cecil B. DemilleCecil B. DeMille, 1953: The 25th Academy Awards ceremony took place March 19, 1953, at the Pantages Theater. It was hosted by Bob Hope—his sixth time as emcee—and the ceremony aired on television for the very first time, despite the movie industry’s reticence to embrace the new medium. Although commercial TV had only been around for about five years, the Oscar telecast drew the largest audience to date. Gary Cooper won best actor for High Noon; Shirley Booth was best actress for Come Back, Little Sheba; and best director was John Ford for The Quiet Man.

“On behalf of the thousands that it took to make The Greatest Show on Earth, I thank you for them. For the stars and the electricians, for the circus people, for their bravery. I thank you for all of them because I am only one little link in a chain that produced that picture. And I’m very happy for them. Thank you.”

Cecil B. DeMille (with Katherine DeMille Quinn, left, and Gloria Grahame) accepting the 1952 best picture Oscar for The Greatest Show on Earth. He earned the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award that same year. His only other statuette was an honorary Oscar in 1950.

Sam SpiegelSam Spiegel, 1963: The 35th Academy Awards took place April 8, 1963, at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, and Frank Sinatra had hosting duties for the first time. Lawrence of Arabia was the big winner of the night, taking home seven statuettes, including picture and director for David Lean. Best actor was Gregory Peck for To Kill a Mockingbird and best actress was Anne Bancroft for The Miracle Worker.

“Ladies and gentlemen, there is no magic formula for creating good pictures. They are made with the serious, concerted hard work by everyone connected in the making of them: The writer, the director, the technicians, the actors, thousands of employees off the picture during the making of it. In behalf of all of those who sweated months in the desert to create this picture, I deeply, sincerely thank the voters of the Academy and proudly accept this honor, proudly and humbly. Thank you.”

Sam Spiegel (with Olivia de Havilland) accepting the 1962 best picture Oscar for Lawrence of Arabia. He won two other Oscars, for 1954’s On the Waterfront and 1957’s Bridge on the River Kwai, plus earned the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1964.

Richard and Lili ZanuckRichard D. & Lili Fini Zanuck, 1990: The 62nd Academy Awards took place March 26, 1990, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, with Billy Crystal taking his maiden voyage as host. Longtime telecast producer Gil Cates held the reins behind the scenes for the first time, as well. The low-budget favorite Driving Miss Daisy earned a total of four Oscars, including best actress for Jessica Tandy and best picture. Daniel Day-Lewis took home best actor for My Left Foot, and directing honors went to Oliver Stone for Born on the Fourth of July.

“Thank you, Academy. We’re up here for really one very simple reason, and that’s the fact that Bruce Beresford is a brilliant director. It’s as simple as that.”[Ed. note: Beresford did not receive a directing nom that year].

—Richard D. Zanuck accepting the 1989 best picture Oscar for Driving Miss Daisy. He earned one more Oscar in 1991, the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award.

“I hope I’m as religious all the rest of the year as I’ve been the last two months. I would very much like to thank the Academy for honoring us and making my mama so proud. Thank you.”

—Lili Fini Zanuck accepting for Driving Miss Daisy.

Saul Zaentz Saul Zaentz, 1997: The 69th Academy Awards took place March 24, 1997, at the Shrine Auditorium. Billy Crystal, by now a familiar face at the telecast, hosted for the fifth time. But the ceremony did have a first: No major studio took home any Oscars in the major categories. The picture and director prizes went to The English Patient; best actor was Geoffrey Rush for Shine; and best actress went to Frances McDormand for Fargo. All were independently produced features.

“I said my cup was full before, now it runneth over. I’d like to thank actors. I love actors. Producers are supposed to not be in love with them, but I love ’em. And I love writers and directors, too. And everyone who worked on the picture, for what they did in making the picture happen. When we were shut down, ran out of money, everyone stayed there in Italy, without pay. Then Harvey and Bob Weinstein came through and financed the picture—we had final cut, though.”

—Saul Zaentz accepting the 1996 best picture Oscar for The English Patient. At the same ceremony, he also earned the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. English Patient marked his third best picture win following 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and 1984’s Amadeus.