Commentary: After Octo-Oscars, 8 ways to boost ratings


Octo-Oscars: On the heels of L.A.'s Octo-Mom we've now had our Octo-Oscars, with eight well deserved wins for "Slumdog Millionaire."

In fact, I woke up during what felt like the eighth hour of the 81st Annual Academy Awards thinking that perhaps all Oscar really needs to turn things around are some Octo suggestions to implement. After all, if just tweaking the show a bit this year and having Hugh Jackman create some Tony-type moments onstage managed to boost ratings by about 13%, just think what could be achieved by tweaking how Academy members make their nominations. Actually, only eight things need to be done, and I'm happy to share them in the hope that it's not too late to influence the 82nd Academy Awards.

Encourage Academy members to see movies year-round. Many Academy members don't get to see a lot of movies throughout the year. The usual explanation is that they're so busy making movies they don't have time to see them the way other people can. It's a key difference, by the way, between Academy members and the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. members who award the Golden Globes and the Broadcast Film Critics Assn. members who hand out the Critics Choice Awards.

Those awards givers see movies all year long because it's part of their jobs to do so. Like it or not, they've got to sit through movies because if they don't they can't write articles about them or tell viewers whether something is or isn't worth the price of admission.

Academy members usually catch up with movies in December and early January when they realize they've got to mail in their nominations ballots. Understandably, panic sets in when they start thinking about who should be nominated and figure out how few of those movies they've actually seen.

Fortunately, DVD screeners are now a well established awards season tradition, so Academy members area able to see films at home. There is, however, a limit on just how many DVD viewings anyone can cram into a week filled with other obligations.

Moreover, we're typically talking about mid- to late-December weeks when many Academy members are leaving for winter vacations. That, of course, gives them even less time in which to see movies. So it figures that Academy members look at what films other awards givers are honoring. After all, if you can't make time to see a year's worth of movies in a few weeks, you can certainly try to fit in the handful of pictures that other people decided to applaud.

That essentially explains why mainstream movies rarely get best picture Oscar noms today. When you let other people get your kicks for you at the movies -- apologies to Bob Dylan -- and you piggyback on their choices for what's best, you wind up with their list rather than your own.

The solution is to hammer home to Academy members the importance of seeing movies throughout the year and to make it easier for them to do so. Studios go out of their way to host awards season screenings of Oscar hopefuls for Academy voters. It would make sense to hold such screenings throughout the year so that films that open months before the awards season starts can be shown then to Academy members.

The idea of making DVD screeners of big studio films and sending them out to Academy members early in the year isn't likely to catch on because of piracy concerns, but why can't distributors create watermarked and encrypted DVDs that could be loaned very briefly to the Academy to screen during the year for members under top security restrictions at the Academy's headquarters? Films that might not otherwise receive consideration during the ultra-busy days of December could get some attention in March or April. If they're good, they could benefit from favorable word of mouth among Academy members.

Hold weekly screenings with filmmaker Q&A sessions. It could also be helpful to offer Academy members theatrical screenings of films throughout the year that were followed by filmmaker Q&A sessions like those that are now routine during the awards season.

I interview filmmakers every week for this column and can tell you there's no shortage of great stories about the challenges of getting a movie made. Talk to a filmmaker and you're going to find out how they had to overcome all sorts of problems during production. Learning about the filmmaking process gives us new respect for those who successfully navigate its perils.

This is exactly the kind of information that HFPA members receive at the screenings studios hold for them. Other media people have a chance to get this information through filmmaker interviews at press junkets. Academy members would benefit greatly from having similar access to filmmakers throughout the year.

Give Academy members more time in which to nominate films. It makes no sense to force Academy members to work within such a narrow window of time when they make their Oscar nominations. The timetable for the 81st Annual Academy Awards called for nomination ballots to be mailed Dec. 26, 2008, and sent back by Jan. 12, 2009.

When you consider that many Academy members were away from just before Christmas until after New Year's -- many returned home Jan. 4 to get their kids back in school -- you can see how little time there was in which to get the job done. There should be, at least, two weeks of post-holidays time during which Academy members can work on nominating films and seeing those they missed earlier in the year.

Move the Oscar ceremonies back to late March. In order to allow for more nominating time and to let that work be done after the holiday season's over, the Academy should move the Oscars back to the late March period they occupied prior to 2004.

In one of its worst management decisions ever, the Academy shortened the awards season by advancing the Oscars to late February starting in 2004. This was supposed to create a more level playing field so that small independent films with little money to spend wouldn't have to campaign for another month.

That's turned out to be absolute nonsense. Distributors with little or no money to spend can't compete effectively even during the shorter Oscar season and studios with lots of money to spend no longer seem willing to shovel it out there just to play the Oscar game. In the end, everyone does whatever they are able to do or feel good about doing and their films win or lose, accordingly. It's really not something the Academy should try to legislate.

Moreover, all the nominated films could benefit from having more playing time in theaters following their nominations because that's a period of heightened awareness when moviegoers used to seek out the nominees. A longer Oscar season would work to the advantage of nominees that are still in theaters. Although the Academy thought a compressed season would reduce the number of competing awards shows, that didn't happen. The same awards shows are now crammed into fewer weeks. Pushing the Oscars back to late March would create a less frenzied awards season where there would once again be a natural build up to the Oscars.

Create a climate of respect for mainstream movies. It's not Academy members' fault that they don't seem to have much respect for mainstream movies even though that's what most of them actually get paid to work on. Because the awards season is now largely driven by the early awards and noms bestowed by critics groups and the Globes, Academy voters seem reticent to celebrate the kind of films we typically call mainstream or commercial or "popcorn pictures."

There's nothing wrong about honoring good popcorn pictures. In the past, Academy members did that without thinking twice about it. Consider, for instance, some of these broad appeal best picture winners from earlier Oscar races -- "The Greatest Show on Earth" (1952), "Around the World in 80 Days" (1956), "Gigi" (1958), "Ben-Hur" (1959), "The Sound of Music" (1965), "Oliver" (1968), "The French Connection" (1971), "The Sting" (1973) and "Rocky" (1976).

These are best picture winners from a time when Academy members didn't look down on the type of movies they worked on. While it's true that in those days there wasn't the specialized product we have today to compete with the studios' big films, there were independent productions, smaller studio dramas and foreign films competing for Academy members votes.

For instance, "High Noon" lost to "The Greatest Show on Earth," "Giant" lost to "Around the World in 80 Days," "The Defiant Ones" lost to "Gigi," "Room at the Top" lost to "Ben-Hur," "Darling" lost to "The Sound of Music," "The Lion in Winter" lost to "Oliver," "The Last Picture Show" lost to "The French Connection," "Cries and Whispers" lost to "The Sting" and "Taxi Driver" lost to "Rocky." Today that might not have been the case. In those days no one else was setting the tone for Academy members as to what was a reasonable choice for Oscar consideration and what was unreasonable because it was too popular in its appeal or, worse yet, was a comedy.

Educate Academy members about how hard it is to do comedy. If you ask filmmakers about their art, you learn very quickly that comedy is one of the most difficult movie genres to do successfully. Because it takes perfect timing to make something come across as being funny, the demands on performance, editing, writing, directing, photography, sound effects and music are much greater than they are with other genres.

Academy members seem to think comedy is less worthy of Oscar consideration than serious, heavy, lengthy dramas are. Consider, for instance, how the same team of skillful marketers at Fox Searchlight came close in recent years but failed to win best picture with well liked films like "Juno" and "Little Miss Sunshine." Both of these movies suffered from being considered comedies despite the fact that "Sunshine" was a very dark comedy and "Juno" had a very serious theme.

This time around Searchlight had the advantage of competing with a serious drama in "Slumdog Millionaire" and managed to take home the best picture Oscar that had previously eluded it thanks to Oscar's comedy curse. It's clearly time to educate Academy members about the hard work that goes into making comedies and to let them know there's nothing wrong with calling a comedy the year's best picture, if indeed it happens to be.

Create a new award for best mainstream movie. Just as the British Academy gives BAFTAs for the year's best film and the year's best British film and thereby is able to celebrate smaller homegrown movies that would otherwise be overshadowed by bigger films from Hollywood, our Academy should give serious consideration to creating a new award that would celebrate the year's best mainstream movie.

By establishing this new category the Academy could take a big step forward to create interest among viewers across the country who don't see the specialized films that dominate the critics groups' awards and then become Academy nominees.

Realist that I am, I'm assuming that my earlier suggestion about creating respect for mainstream movies won't get very far and that most of us aren't likely to live long enough to see a return to the days when big commercial films were routinely nominated for best picture. Therefore, why not at least create a new category to honor broader appeal movies that the public actually goes to see and enjoys?

It's unlikely that the Academy would ever allow an Oscar to be awarded in this new category, but it certainly could create a kind of People's Choice award that Oscar telecast viewers could vote for online or by calling designated phone numbers during the show. There could be a running tabulation on the screen throughout the evening, perhaps starting during the popular red carpet arrivals, and that would be a likely ratings booster.

Forget about reclaiming the glamour of Oscar's past. As much as the Academy likes to tie Oscar to Hollywood's glamorous past, it's just not something anyone else cares about. The public doesn't know or care about Hollywood's early days and has no frame of reference when it comes to classic movies. Today's moviegoers think the 1980s were "the past" because so many of them were born then. They don't care about what happened at the first Oscars in 1927 and Hollywood's Golden Age isn't something that matters to them.

The way to boost the public's interest in the Oscars is to have movies competing in the prime categories that people have actually seen and, hopefully, enjoyed. Give the public a rooting interest in the nominees and there's a good chance that Oscar's ratings will climb.

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