Moving Oscars back to late March could help a lot

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Oscar overview: Looking ahead to the 80th annual Oscars, the big question that comes to mind is what could the Academy to do solve some of the problems that impacted on this year's event?

Perhaps the best move the Academy could make next year would be to move the Oscars back to late March. While that's probably about as likely as seeing a sudden end to the war in Iraq, it's still something to hope for. If the Academy were to acknowledge that moving the Oscars from late March to late February hadn't worked out quite as well as anticipated, it would do itself and its members a big service.

For one thing, shifting the Oscars back to late March would distance them nicely from all the other awards shows that now dominate the media from December through February. It would reduce the copycat feeling the Oscars now have because we've all just seen the same nominees walking down similar red carpets, winning similar awards and making similar acceptance speeches everywhere else.

Next year's calendar is shaping up about the same as this year's was and this year's was pretty much the same as the prior year's was (except that this year's Oscars were Feb. 25 and last year's were Mar. 5 to avoid competing for ratings the previous weekend with the Winter Olympics). The morning after the 79th Oscars, the Screen Actors Guild staked out Jan. 27, 2008 for its 14th annual awards. The next day the Directors Guild of America nailed down Jan. 26, 2008 for its 60th annual awards, pointing out in that announcement that for 53 of the past 59 years the DGA winner has also been Oscar's best directing winner.

You can expect the rest of the major awards events to wind up staying pretty close to the same schedules they were on this year. As a result, when the 2008 Oscars roll around the likelihood is that people will be talking once again about how it's all so deja vu. The element of suspense that would make people want to stay tuned to find out who wins is missing from most Oscar races now because the Oscars are now the last stop on the awards railroad, so to speak. That sameness isn't going to translate into bigger ratings for the telecast. Although this year's ratings were up modestly over last year, they didn't show the kind of improvement that would take the pressure off.

We're really not going to see a solution to this problem of overlapping nominees and winners as long as the Academy maintains the compressed awards season it created by moving the Oscars from late March to late February. That move essentially made it impossible for Academy members to ever have enough time to consider more than a handful of films before they have to return their nominations ballots. It made Academy voters dependent on other awards givers to define the field of candidates because it's simply human nature to react to what others have just done if you need to do the same thing in a hurry.

In particular, the Academy's new timetable made the Golden Globes more powerful than ever before. Many people don't understand this because they know the Globe wins generally aren't announced until after Academy members have finished voting in January. But what's important here are the Globe nominations not the wins. Just before Academy members escape from L.A. for their winter holidays they see extensive media coverage of the Globe noms, followed by a barrage of newspaper and television ads for those movies playing in the marketplace that are Globe nominees. They see interviews with the Globe nominated stars and filmmakers and they can't help but start regarding those people as contenders. It would be next to impossible to be exposed to all the publicity generated about those Globe nominees and not begin to think of them as Oscar nominees.

By revising its timetable for the Oscars the Academy would be able to extend the period of time that members have to see films before having to mark their nominations ballots in January. If, for instance, Academy members had another two weeks of viewing time to work with in January after they're back from their vacations many of them would probably be able to see another eight to 10 movies. That could make an enormous difference in terms of what performances could be discovered that are now forced to go unseen because there's just not enough time to see everything.

In particular, being able to see more movies would benefit smaller distributors whose films tend to be the ones that really need to be discovered through word of mouth. These are the titles that we hear about from friends who heard about them from their friends and who typically tell you, "You've got to see this!" In other words, the more obscure a film is the more passionate about it people become after they've found it. You want to spread the word about something good that you know people don't know about yet.

While this would be a positive development, it also presents some potential problems. Although Academy members could get excited about films they'd discover because they had more time to attend screenings or look at DVD screeners at home, the audience for the Oscar telecast is not likely to have seen these smaller movies and isn't likely to care about their chances of winning. I'd liken this situation to the way I sometimes feel when I watch the Independent Spirit Awards and see people nominated for very small films that I've missed, myself. When you haven't seen the movies, you don't have the same rooting interest in them you'd have if you knew them.

By advancing the Oscars to late February the Academy maintained it was helping to level the playing field by shortening the number of weeks that companies had to spend marketing money to compete for Oscar consideration. In theory, smaller distributors would benefit from the compressed voting season because they would not have to support their picture for as long a period of time. But things worked out differently. Distributors of all sizes wound up spending as much or even more money to get their messages across in a limited number of weeks. Moreover, the reduced voting period hurt smaller films by cutting into the time that they had to market themselves to moviegoers as the recipients of multiple Oscar noms and, hopefully, to sell tickets because of it. Fewer voting weeks translates into fewer weeks to do business in the Oscar marketplace.

What the Academy really needs to increase audience interest in the Oscar telecast are more mainstream nominees that moviegoers across the country have seen and enjoyed and would root for to win. The trouble is that the present system in which critics groups really define the field of nominees results in a bias towards small dramas or small dark comedies. Add to this the fact that the Academy generally doesn't give comedies the respect they deserve and you wind up with a set of nominees that aren't going to resonate well with your typical Nielsen families in mid-America.

When you look back at last year's top ten grossing movies, you find that very few of them figured significantly in the Oscar race. Here's a look at the 2006 boxoffice top ten, their domestic grosses and how they fared with Academy voters:

(1) "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" - $423.3 million. "Pirates" won the Oscar for best visual effects and had three other technical noms (art direction, sound editing and sound mixing). It received no acting nominations and wasn't a best picture nominee.

(2) "Cars" - $244.1 million. "Cars" was Oscar nominated for best animated feature and for original song and lost in both categories.

(3) "Night at the Museum" - $242 million. "Night" did not receive any Oscar nominations.

(4) "X-Men: The Last Stand" - $234.4 million. "Stand" did not receive any Oscar nominations.

(5) "The Da Vinci Code" - $217.5 million. "Code" did not receive any Oscar nominations.

(6) "Superman Returns" - $200.1 million. "Superman" was Oscar nominated for best visual effects, but did not win.

(7) "Ice Age: The Meltdown" - $195.3 million. "Meltdown" did not receive any Oscar nominations.

(8) "Happy Feet" - $194.3 million. "Happy" won the Oscar for best animated feature, the only category in which it was nominated.

(9) "Casino Royale" - $167 million. "Casino" did not receive any Oscar nominations.

(10) "The Pursuit of Happyness" - $162.6 million. "Happyness" received a best actor Oscar nomination for Will Smith, who did not win.

Between them, the top ten films of 2006 grossed about $2.1 billion domestically and received only one Oscar nomination in a category (best actor) other than for technical achievements or animation. The only non technical Oscar that any film in the '06 boxoffice top ten took home was best animated feature for "Happy Feet." It's only since 2001, of course, that Oscar has had a best animated feature category, but creating it has made it possible for the Academy to include as nominees at least a handful of the films that many people watching the telecast have actually seen.

What really could make a big difference in terms of boosting audience interest in the Oscar telecast would be a new category that would enable the Academy to honor popular movies like "Night at the Museum" or "The Da Vinci Code" or "Casino Royale" that are presently flying under the Academy's voting radar. In a universe of nominees defined mostly by critics groups, such films aren't likely to wind up competing for Oscars. Given the Academy's cautious approach to change, there's probably no possibility of an Oscar category being created in which such films could be recognized. It would, however, be possible to honor achievements in blockbuster filmmaking by creating a non-Oscar category in which such titles could be nominated and honored.

This award could be voted on by Academy members, many of whom would probably have actually seen the titles that could be nominated because they'd have taken their kids or their grandchildren to see them the same way "civilian" moviegoers do. But even better than having Academy members make these noms and decide on a winner would be for the Academy to create a people's choice award. The nominees for this new non-Oscar category could be nominated through voting on the Internet. This would, by the way, drive additional traffic to the Academy's website and, by so doing, boost the site's advertising revenues.

The voting to determine the winner in this category could be done over the Internet and, perhaps, by calls to toll free phone numbers promoted on screen throughout the Oscar telecast. A running digital display of the total votes per nominee in this category could be displayed across the bottom of the screen during the telecast so that viewers would know how their favorite films were doing. It would be a good idea to structure the voting so that people could vote multiple times by phone or Internet because by allowing more than one vote per person the Academy would be encouraging people to get passionate about the films they wanted to see win in this special category.

The winner would not receive an Oscar or anything that looked like an Oscar or that could be confused with an Oscar, but instead would be handed a new award created especially for this category. In fact, the Academy could create a product placement revenue generating connection here for itself by giving the winner of this category something other than a statuette. What if the winner received a Bentley convertible or a Cartier diamond watch or a Prada gown or some other luxury gift that any number of companies would be happy to contribute (and pay money to the Academy for the privilege of doing so) in return for the global TV exposure?

Come to think of it, the biggest winner of all would receive a reward rather than an award because that winner would be the Academy. Its reward would be the kind of Oscar ratings boost that's otherwise unlikely to happen.

Filmmaker flashbacks: From March 8, 1989's column: "One of the wonderful things about Hollywood is that nobody ever really knows what's going to happen next.

"For example, one day insiders are sitting around predicting that Marvin Davis is this close to buying MGM/UA. The next day's headlines are that Time and Warner Communications are merging. Another day's inside buzz is that Sony is buying Columbia, that Dawn Steel's days as Columbia's president are numbered and that a former studio president and some associates are taking Tri-Star private. A day later the news is that Tri-Star is being folded into Columbia and that Steel is solidly in place as president of the combined operation.

"What does it all mean? Time Warner appears to be a company that points the way to the future of the motion picture business. Because it controls its own cable and pay television operations, Time Warner will be unique in knowing it can totally control the destiny of its filmed product. Clearly this gives it an edge over its many competitors.

"The $18 billion merger is bad news for the commercial networks, which now face a formidable challenge from the cable and pay television world in which Time Warner is such a major player. The last thing the networks need is competition from a financially solid giant able to produce and distribute through its cable and pay-TV systems programming that is in creative terms at least equal to or, perhaps, better than what's on the networks.

"The networks' declining share of audience can only be expected to decline further if, for instance, Time Warner decides to turn Home Box Office into the industry's proverbial 'fourth network.' With Time Warner's creative resources it wouldn't be difficult to turn what's still essentially a movie service into a full-fledged network. Combine Warner's resources for producing television programs with Time's resources for gathering and reporting news, features and lifestyle information and the result could well be a cable-delivered pay-TV network without the standards and practices restrictions under which the broadcast networks still labor.

"As for Columbia absorbing Tri-Star, the real news appears to be the failure of the much-trumped attempt in 1982 by Coca-Cola, Time's HBO and CBS Inc. to create a new major studio. The industry and the media were quick to confer major status on that venture, but it didn't work...As things now stand, Columbia will benefit from having its overhead reduced and from the management changes that strengthened the presidency of Dawn Steel -- a highly capable studio chief despite all the nasty gossip you hear -- and that created a leaner Tri-Star whose prospects are considerably more encouraging under its new president, Jeff Sagansky."

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