Why the Academy's Music Branch Tightened Up Its Live Performances Rule

A more specific choice of words, adopted by the Academy's Board of Governors on Tuesday night, will affect the ways in which companies campaign for best original song Oscar contenders.
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The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Wednesday released its annual update to its "regulations concerning the promotion of films eligible for the 88th Academy Awards" — the rules governing Oscar campaigning — and there was only really one change from the previous rules of any note. A musical note.

The Academy wants voters to judge not just the quality of a song, but also the degree to which it serves the film in which it is featured. (That's why only the first song that plays over a movie's end credits is eligible.) And the organization feels that musical performances of Oscar-eligible songs, presented apart from film screenings, can get in the way of how the song functions in a movie.

Because there have been a growing number of events in recent years built around special song performances, last years's regulations decreed: "Music Branch members may not attend any special live performances of eligible songs unless attached to a screening." This year, the new regulations further tightened up that language: "Music Branch members may not be invited to attend any live performances of songs eligible for nomination unless performed at the same time and venue as a screening of the entire film."

That change of language presumably eliminates any grey area that might have appeared to condone a performance of a song at a reception that preceded or followed a screening that took place at another venue.

Here's why the wording has evolved:

In 2013, a trio of Oscar hopefuls hosted events centered around musical performances: CBS Films held two for Inside Llewyn Davis (at The Town Hall in New York on Sept. 29 and at The Buffalo Club in Los Angeles on Nov. 13) and Disney held one for Saving Mr. Banks (at the Beverly Hills Hotel's Polo Lounge in Los Angeles on Nov. 8) before nominations voting took place. And then Disney hosted one for Frozen (at Vibrato Grill Jazz in Los Angeles on Feb. 9) after the nominations had already been announced.

Academy members were invited to the Llewyn Davis event (where star Oscar Isaac sang alongside a number of other musicians) and Banks event (at which Music Branch member Richard Sherman, who is portrayed in the film, led a cast sing-a-along from the piano). But they weren't invited to the Frozen event (where Idina Menzel blew the roof off of the place with a rendition of her nominated tune "Let It Go") since campaign events, apart from four screenings-with-Q&As, are banned during the second phase of the race.

There is no evidence that any of those events impacted that season's Oscar race in any meaningful way: Neither Llewyn Davis nor Banks earned nominations in the original song race, and Frozen's "Let It Go" was that category's frontrunner from the very beginning. But, still, the Academy wanted to put a lid on this sort of thing before it became a problem, so last year's regulations were introduced.

Then, an event last season that was almost a problem became the impetus for altering the wording for this season, I'm told reliably. Universal invited LA-based Oscar voters, including members of the Music Branch, to Fig & Olive on Dec. 14 "to celebrate Unbroken with a special Chris Martin performance" that was to include a rendition of "Miracles," the Coldplay frontman's Oscar-eligible song from the film. The studio also invited the Academy members to see the film at a screening at the Pacific Design Center immediately before the gathering.

However, a member of the Board of Governors felt that this violated the spirit of the "unless attached to a screening" clause — which this individual always assumed meant "at the same time and venue as a screening of the entire film," as it now states — and conveyed as much to Universal. The studio promptly — if also uncomfortably — uninvited all of the Music Branch members who had been invited, and thereby dodged a controversy.

Going forward, some film companies will probably navigate this new wording by occasionally offering a screening of a film with a best original song Oscar contender at a venue that also has the space and acoustics to accommodate a musical performance before or after the film unspools, such as the Pacific Design Center or the Annenberg Center. Those are more expensive venues than most, but the cost may be worth it to companies anxious to get exposure for the talent associated with their contending song(s).

Companies may also seek to circumvent this new wording by making their musical talent available to perform at independently-organized events. For instance, Gregg Alexander, a contender — and eventual nominee at the most recent Oscars — for his original song "Lost Stars" from Begin Again, was nominated for a prize and performed his song at the Hollywood Music in Media Awards at the Fonda Theatre on Nov. 4, as well as at the closing night of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on Feb. 7, both hotbeds of Academy members from all branches. And on Feb. 23, 2014, U2's Bono was presented with an award for — and recited the lyrics of — his band's nominated song "Ordinary Love" at the Los Angeles-Italia Film, Fashion and Art Festival's awards ceremony, which counts Music Branch members among its organizers and regulars.

In other words, there are still ways for Oscar-contending musical talent to perform in front of the Academy's Music Branch members. However — and perhaps frustratingly for someone like Brian Wilson, the legendary singer-songwriter who is the subject of the new biopic Love & Mercy and composed an original song, "One Kind of Love," for it — it will have to happen close to a movie screen.

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