Oscar: What, me worry?

No writers or waiver, but Acad says it's on track

While the writers strike has pulled the rug out from under the Golden Globes, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is quietly making plans for the 80th Annual Academy Awards, scheduled for Feb. 24, hoping that it isn't tripped up as well.

But with no writers on hand, the trophy show already is behind schedule.

"I'm not going to cite odds, but our hope is we can work something out or that the strike is resolved in time," Academy executive director Bruce Davis said Tuesday.

"The major change from last year," he said, "is that in a normal year, we'd have assembled a staff of writers, and they would have been working on the show for more than a month."

Following that schedule, writing for this year's show would kick into high gear after the Oscar noms are announced Jan. 22.

In a typical year, the Academy assembles one group of writers — often including such frequent contributors as Dave Boone, Carol Leifer and Bruce Vilanch — while the host brings in a second set of writers. Last year's show required at least 14 writers, including host Ellen DeGeneres.

But this year, the Academy said it hasn't yet hired any writers, and Jon Stewart, who is to serve as emcee, hasn't brought together his writers, either.

Stewart, who initially refused to cross picket lines, returned to the air this week as star of "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" on Comedy Central. He is expected to be on hand at the Oscars, but Academy officials admitted that if he should withdraw for any reason, they have no plan B in place.

When it does approach the WGA for a waiver, the Academy is likely to argue that it owns the Academy Awards, which it licenses to ABC, and so should be able to negotiate an agreement on its own like David Letterman's Worldwide Pants did. It also could argue that of the Academy's 15 branches, only one is composed of executives and that the rest of the Academy membership is made up of creative artists such as actors, directors and writers, many of whom share the WGA's goals.

Personal relations also could come into play: Gil Cates, one of the DGA's lead negotiators, is producing this year's Oscar show. And in the interest of solidarity, he could argue that the WGA should grant the Academy a waiver just as it did for the SAG Awards.

If denied writers, an Oscar show still could limp along. The 60th Annual Academy Awards took place during the 1988 writers strike, but the stars — including that night's best actor and actress winners Michael Douglas and Cher — were all in attendance.

What worries Oscar planners this year is the threat of WGA pickets, which upended the Globes.

If the strike hasn't ended by late February, and the Academy isn't granted a waiver, then the Academy could be forced to decide whether to postpone the show if the WGA is planning to picket.

Postponements have happened only three times in Academy history: in 1938, because of floods; in 1968, because of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.; and in 1981, when the Oscars were postponed for 24 hours in the wake of the assassination attempt on President Reagan.

The last time the Academy faced such a decision was 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq just four days before the Oscars were to take place. With the clock counting down, the Academy decided to go on with the show but eliminated much of the glitz surrounding the traditional red-carpet arrivals to reflect a more somber mood.

Academy officials were on hand Tuesday morning for a previously scheduled press event at the organization's headquarters, in which PricewaterhouseCoopers' Brad Oltmanns and Rick Rosas explained the preferential voting system the Academy uses to determine its nominees.

Adopted by the Academy in 1936, the system asks Academy members to list five choices in order of preference in each category in which they vote. For nominations, members of each branch vote in their respective area, while all the members nominate best picture.

The accountants then take the paper ballots and sort them into piles according to each ballot's first choice. The total number of ballots in a category is divided by six (five nominees plus one), which produces the minimum number of votes needed to secure a nomination.

Potential nominees with the lowest number of votes are then eliminated, and those ballots' second-choice votes are reassigned to the various piles. In cases where a second choice already has been eliminated, that ballot's third-, fourth- or even fifth-place nominee is added to the surviving piles until five nominees emerge.

"In effect," Rosas said, "we are trying to weed out those five that have the highest, deepest support."

Added Davis, "This allows you to vote your heart, however eccentric your preferences may be, and still leave you in the game."

It takes seven days to count the nomination ballots. Although the process could go faster if it was computerized, the accounting firm uses a paper system so that there is no file that anyone can hack into.

Under the preferential system used in the nominating process, a tie is impossible. However, on the final ballots, where the winner is determined by whoever gets the most votes, ties are possible.
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