Moving Oscars back to late March could solve problems

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Oscar outlook: Writing about the Oscar outlook typically means focusing on which films and stars stand the best chance of being nominated, but this year there's something else to think about.

What's different is that as we start 2008 no one knows for certain if there even will be an Oscar show because the Writers Guild strike could keep stars from participating in and attending the 80th annual Academy Awards on Feb. 24. So it's really a question of not only handicapping the Oscars, but of betting on whether there will be a show.

Without getting into who's right and who's wrong -- the writers? the producers? everybody? -- let's just say that with the WGA refusing to allow the Academy to use movie clips in this year's Oscar show and with no WGA waiver likely to enable the show to go on without a red carpet picket line, it's anybody's guess what will happen.

In an industry whose tradition is that "the show must go on," it's hard to believe there won't be an Oscarcast. On the other hand, it's equally hard to believe there will be a settlement of the strike -- and, believe, me I hope I'm totally wrong about that -- before Feb. 24. A show without the endless assortment of movie clips that Oscar typically presents wouldn't, by the way, be such a terrible thing. Instead of a bloated three hour-plus telecast, we could have a faster-paced two hour-plus program. All those retrospective honors with clip after clip from films no one in the television audience cares at all about seeing would speed things up and hold on to viewers.

I'm sure my Academy friends are shaking their heads as they read this because they honestly believe all those visual trips down Hollywood's memory lane are valuable. But the fact is, no one outside the Academy cares and, frankly, I wonder how many Academy members sitting there in the Kodak Theater really care. I bet many of them would much prefer getting to their afterparties an hour sooner.

But clips aren't really the issue. The question is can the Academy in the face of WGA pickets mount any kind of telecast that could feature the star power that would attract and hold viewers to satisfy ABC's lineup of big bucks advertisers? If there are any brilliant solutions to this problem, I haven't heard them.

One idea I'd like to float here today is that, perhaps, the Academy can buy itself some time by moving the Oscars back to the late March timeslot they originally occupied. By declaring an emergency and delaying the 80th Academy Awards until, say, March 30, the Academy would give itself another month or so of breathing space during which, hopefully, the producers and writers could settle the strike. Perhaps the Academy could strike a deal with the Guild to receive a waiver to let the show go on in late March even if the strike were still on. This could be in return for the Academy having delayed the Oscars in deference to the strike.

I never thought the idea of moving the Oscars from March to February was a good one and this would be the perfect reason to reverse that change. It was in August 2002 that the Academy said it was planning to shift Oscar's big day starting with the 2004 telecast honoring the best films of 2003. Instead of a late March date, the 76th Annual Academy Awards would be held Feb. 29, 2004. News reports at the time pointed out immediately that this change in the calendar would give Academy voters much less time in which to make their nominations, but everyone assumed they'd somehow manage to get it done.

What happened is that it put Oscar voters under intense pressure to see films and make their nominating decisions in time to meet the Academy's compressed timetable. This year, for instance, the Academy mailed its nominations ballots Dec. 26. They must be returned by Jan. 12 at 5 p.m., PST. When they arrived in mailboxes in late December many voters weren't there to deal with them because they were on the ski slopes in Aspen, on the beach in Maui, sailing in the Caribbean or chilling out in other vacation hideaways around the globe. Wherever they were, they probably weren't spending their time watching movies.

When they returned home -- probably today in most cases -- there were 50-some DVD screeners waiting for them along with numerous invitations to see the same films in screening rooms around town. Since they have to send in their ballots prior to Jan. 12, once they catch up on their personal lives they'll really only have four or five nights in which to look at movies. While they may have seen a few potential contenders earlier in the year, with so many films surfacing at year-end it's virtually impossible see them all in the limited amount of time available. The films that suffer the most are the smaller ones that need to be discovered through reviews and word of mouth because that typically takes time to happen.

Some Hollywood executives grumbled back in 2002 that advancing the Oscars' date would benefit the major studios, whose high-profile wide release films tend to be on Academy members' radar way before they find out about all those lower profile independent films from specialized distributors. There are now four years of Oscar voting history to review and what we see is that the results have varied.

The first year of early Oscars was 2004 when the best picture nominees for the year 2003 were four major studio releases -- New Line's "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," which won; 20th Century Fox's "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World;" Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow's "Mystic River;" and Universal's "Seabiscuit" -- and one specialized release -- Focus Features' "Lost in Translation." Clearly, the major studios dominated the field at the February '04 show.

In February 2005 the best picture nominees for the year 2004 were two major studio releases -- Warner Bros. and Lakeshore Entertainment's "Million Dollar Baby," which won; and Universal's "Ray" -- and three specialized releases -- Miramax and Initial Entertainment Group's "The Aviator;" Miramax's "Finding Neverland;" and Fox Searchlight's "Sideways." Although specialized films dominated the category, it was a major studio release that won.

In February 2006 the best picture nominees for the year 2005 were one major studio release -- Universal and DreamWorks' "Munich" -- and four specialized releases -- Lionsgate's "Crash," which won; Focus Features' "Brokeback Mountain;" Sony Pictures Classics' "Capote;" and Warner Independent's "Good Night, and Good Luck." This time around specialized releases dominated the field and one of them took home the award.

In February 2007 the best picture nominees for the year 2006 were two major studio releases -- Warner Bros. and Initial Entertainment Group's "The Departed," which won; and Paramount and Warner Bros.' "Letters From Iwo Jima" -- and three specialized releases -- Paramount Vantage's "Babel;" Fox Searchlight's "Little Miss Sunshine;" and Miramax's "The Queen." Although the specialized releases dominated, it was a studio release that won.

While the picture is muddled when you consider the nominees and winners, it's much clearer when you look only at who actually took home the best picture Oscars for those four years. In three out of the four years the prize went to a major studio film. As nice as it is to be nominated for best picture, the name of the game is winning and the shift to February has helped the studios more than it has the specialized distributors.

It's also worked against specialized films in another way. In the past, these smaller films benefited from having an extended period of time between when they were Oscar-nominated to when the awards were presented. Even if they didn't win best picture, they had the advantage of selling tickets to people across the country who wanted to see all five nominees in order to better predict the winner. After all, the best picture Oscar race figures in office betting pools everywhere. Small films that used to get into the best picture race were virtually guaranteed a boxoffice boost because of it. Now with a much shorter window between noms and wins, that benefit is history.

What happens now is that films hoping for best picture consideration open late in the year in the midst of critics groups awards that either make them look like contenders or nonstarters. If they haven't resonated with the critics groups they get one more chance to shine just before Christmas when the Golden Globe noms are announced. Depending on how they're looking at that point, their distributors either put money into campaigning for Oscar consideration or leave them penniless on the campaign sidelines.

Having a longer period in which to campaign for Oscars would level the playing field because it allows time for voters to discover films that weren't on their radar early in the game. There's also time for moviegoers to find these films as they go wider and move into more cities. Moreover, the marketing money that drives their expansion also serves to promote them for Oscar consideration.

With a late March Oscar show, by the time the winners are announced the nominees for best picture have had a chance to find and be found by their audience. They've enjoyed some benefit at the boxoffice from being best picture Oscar nominees. That's not really the case now with Oscar being a late February event.

It's also good for the Academy when its best picture nominees do more business because that means more people across the country are familiar with them and may now have a rooting interest in how well they do Oscar night. If they care about who wins, they're more likely to stay tuned until the end of the show, which is typically quite late on the East Coast. So the more interest people have in the best picture nominees, the bigger the Academy's ratings are likely to be.

In recent years, the critics groups and the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., have increasingly driven the Oscar race because they create what is, in effect, a shortlist for Academy members to work from when they figure out what movies to see and consider during their minivoting period. The awards or nominations that these groups hand out influence Oscar voters because they read about them and see them covered on television. It's only human nature to conclude that these are the pictures worth spending time on.

The trouble is that the critics groups, in particular, tend to endorse small esoteric movies with a bleak outlook on life that isn't necessarily shared by regular moviegoers or Academy members. This tends to distort the nominations and result in a slate of films for best picture consideration that the national television audience hasn't seen or, in many cases, even had an opportunity to see yet.

Moving the Oscars back to late March would be a step in the right direction towards solving these problems. It could also help solve this year's unique challenge of how to do an Oscar show without a WGA waiver. And by moving the show ahead a month, the Academy would then be able to extend its deadline for returning nominations ballots by several weeks. That would give voters a chance to actually see the movies -- and who knows what they'd wind up nominating then?

Filmmaker flashbacks: From July 12 & 13, 1990's columns: "In a summer with few solid boxoffice success stories, the strength Carolco Pictures' 'Total Recall' is showing domestically in its Tri-Star release is arguably the most noteworthy.

"'We have taken a fairly low-profile over the past four or five years. 'Total Recall' in a sense has probably brought to recognition publicly what we, of course, have been saying for some time -- that we think we have become a major studio,' Carolco president and CEO Peter M. Hoffman told me Tuesday. 'Whether or not we have our own theatrical distribution is an interesting question strategically, but we are today a bigger company in revenues, in profitability, in our balance sheet, in the type of movies we make and in our ability to get revenue out of any particular movie -- so that we rank along with any one of them...'

"Given Carolco's affection for big-budget productions, Wall Street sees risks: 'I think there's no question about it. I could talk 'till I'm blue in the face to say it's less risky to make a $50 million movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger than it is to make a $15 million movie with Joe Blow, but the message just doesn't get across to some people...'

"Focusing on the importance of Schwarzenegger's work to promote 'Total,' Hoffman notes that Carolco always looks for such cooperation from its stars: 'We like to think that when we pay as much money as we do for talent that they should be extremely cooperative. Of course, Arnold is more than that because Arnold, himself, is kind of a media star in his own right. He goes out and does things that no publicity department could have thought of. But, generally speaking, we assume and we try to be clear with our people upfront that that's one of the things expected from them...

"Recently, Carolco has drawn industry criticism for establishing a new benchmark price for screenplays by paying $3 million to Joe Eszterhas for writing 'Basic Instinct.' 'Some people don't like the fact that we have a free market in talent,' he observes. 'We thank God we have a free market in talent. That's how we got to where we are. It's in the interest of the studios that there not be a free market in talent and that they have a limited market with, let's call it, winks and elbow jabs about the limits of bidding. That, of course, serves their purpose. As a new entrant, we have to do a little extra to get the product that we want. Frankly, when you're looking at a $30 million movie, paying an extra million dollars for a screenplay really doesn't matter a lot.'"

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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