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This story first appeared in the Dec. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
I’m one of the Academy Awards’ biggest fans. And as someone for whom the Oscars telecast is never too long, the host never too bland and the winners never too disagreeable, I’d nonetheless like to propose three ideas that could make the Oscars even better.
1. HAVE TWO VOTING PERIODS
How much do filmmakers and studios value the Oscars? Look no further than a list of release dates. Awards strategists have concluded that the films that are most likely to be remembered by Academy members when they fill out their ballots at the end of the year are — surprise! — those that are released late in the year. Consequently, the vast majority of awards-worthy movies come out between September and December, while the other two-thirds of the year are dominated by schlock.
This situation is extremely frustrating for anyone who loves quality movies, including most Academy members. The year-end logjam also creates major obstacles for conscientious Academy voters: They are inundated with so many screeners and screenings at year’s end, they can’t possibly see all of the films they should before the nominations deadline — which is Jan. 3 this time, earlier than it’s ever been.
But the Academy has it in its power to do a great service for not just its members but for all moviegoers: Divide the year into two voting periods, Jan. 1 through June 30 and July 1 through Dec. 31. Have your members select five best picture nominees at the end of each period, bringing us back to the grand total of 10 that we had in 2009 and 2010. That would give studios a tremendous incentive to release quality movies throughout the year. Encouraging distributors to release their best movies on a year-round basis can only prompt wider interest in the quality films that are quickly becoming an endangered species.
2. CHANGE WHO VOTES FOR WHAT
The Academy employs a smart system to pick its nominees but a boneheaded system to pick its actual winners. All of the Academy’s nearly 6,000 members belong to one of 15 branches, representing the various disciplines of filmmaking. The members of each branch vote for the nominees from their respective branch (while the entire membership votes for the best picture nominees). That’s logical enough — after all, a member of the film editors branch is more qualified than anyone in the Academy to determine which film deserves a nom for editing.
But somewhere along the line, the Academy decided it was a good idea to empower all of its members to vote for the winners in all Oscar categories (except for documentary and short films). But what qualifies, say, a makeup artist to weigh in on the winner of the best original screenplay Oscar, or a cinematographer to influence the outcome of best original score? When it comes to the crafts awards, voters often simply check off their favorite movies, turning them into popularity contests.
The current system has had far-reaching implications. A great cinematographer such as Roger Deakins (nine nominations) or a great composer like Thomas Newman (10 nominations) or a great sound mixer such as Greg P. Russell (15 nominations) — all of whom worked on this year’s Skyfall — have been nominated year after year by their peers but still have no Oscars to their name because the majority of people who judge their categories have, frankly, no idea how to judge their respective crafts.
But there’s a simple fix. Continue to let everyone vote for best pic, but the final vote for other awards should be conducted just like the nominations vote, with members of each branch deciding that particular Oscar: The outcome of each category would be determined only by those whose experience qualifies them to sit in judgment of the eligible contenders.
3. EMBRACE THE PUBLIC
The Academy should reach out more to movie lovers among the general public. A handful get to sit outside in the bleachers on Oscar night and watch as the stars make their way down the red carpet. But they deserve better and should be invited, to a limited degree, into the Oscar voting and the show itself.
The Academy just announced a contest that will allow a few winning college students to become presenters on the show. It’s a good start, but you could and should do a lot more. Create a “best popcorn movie” Oscar category — or call it something else if you want — and let the fans pick both nominees and a winner through online voting. It wouldn’t destroy the dignity of the Oscars to have a movie such as The Dark Knight nominated by the public. In fact, the film’s candidacy and the presence of its A-list director and stars would give more movie lovers a reason to tune in.
I’d also urge the Academy to solicit essays or videos on its website about why people love the Oscars. Reward those with the best submissions with seats inside the theater on Oscar night — even if they are behind camera operators who block their view.
Trust me, nobody values the tradition and formality of the Oscars more than I do. But if the Academy doesn’t adapt to the times and put on a show the public wants to watch, the telecast’s ratings will continue to decline. The first Oscars ceremony took place at a dinner in 1929; attendees had to pay at the door, and the winners were announced in advance. Obviously, a lot has changed over the years. No reason to stop changing now.
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