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This story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
No one is a bigger fan of the Oscars than I am. I don’t think the Academy Awards are broken — far from it — even if many others do. But as someone who wants them to survive and thrive forever, I do believe there are a few relatively simple changes the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can institute to make the awards even better.
1. Guarantee 10 best picture nominees — from throughout the year
How much do filmmakers and distributors covet the Oscars? So much that their ambition affects the film industry’s release schedule, with the vast majority of award-quality films being released in the last quarter of each year so that they will be remembered by voters when balloting begins at the end of December. The result is that moviegoers both inside and outside of the Academy are bombarded with more films than they can possibly see during one quarter of the year — as Harvey Weinstein recently complained in a guest column for THR — after having had little of quality to choose from during the other three quarters.
The good news: This is something the Academy — and only the Academy — has the power to change.
If the Academy wants to be a hero and improve the moviegoing experience for everyone, it could announce two separate voting periods for its best picture category: one recognizing five films released between Jan. 1 and June 30, the other recognizing five films released between July 1 and Dec. 31. (Voting for all other categories would continue to take place after the end of the year.) This would incentivize studios to release quality films throughout the year, since a movie would have just as much of a shot at being remembered for a best pic nom in March as it would in September.
Yes, this would bring us back to a guaranteed 10 nominees, as was the case in 2009 and 2010 (a policy then abandoned in favor of the current five-to-10 potential field). So what? There also were at least 10 nominees from 1933 through 1943, so this change would mark a return to tradition. I reject the notion that there aren’t at least 10 worthy films in any given year — and believe that guaranteeing 10 slots would incentivize the production and distribution of even more. The Oscars are a promotional vehicle; nobody is hurt by having more movies (and more stars) in the awards spotlight. `
2. Tighten the Academy membership rolls
The Oscars are supposed to reflect the way the film industry feels about each year’s crop of movies, so it seems reasonable to expect that nominees and winners will be chosen only by people who actually play an active role in the industry. This, however, is not the case.
Many Academy members, for one reason or another, have been out of the business for decades. Academy membership is for life, provided one follows the rules and pays dues, and I wouldn’t suggest changing that. I would, however, suggest withholding voting privileges from people who haven’t verifiably worked on a film in, say, the past 10 years.
This isn’t an original idea — in fact, it was implemented, to great resistance, by then-Academy president Gregory Peck in the late 1960s, when the organization faced widespread criticism for making out-of-touch selections. For that same reason, it’s necessary today as a complement to the Academy’s ongoing effort to seek diverse new members.
President Cheryl Boone Isaacs should pore over the membership list (the entirety of which also should be made public in the name of transparency, just as the identities of people invited to join the Academy are) and identify those who should be moved to “associate member” status (which is now allotted for, among others, agents and stuntpeople who, incidentally, deserve branches of their own as much as publicists do). If that person works again, his or her status would change and they would once again become a voter. Regardless, he or she would still continue to enjoy all the other privileges of being an Academy member, including the opportunity to attend free screenings.
3. Implement sensible restrictions on second-round voting
No one likes to give up privileges they’ve long possessed, but it’s high time the Academy rescinded members’ opportunity to vote for Oscar winners in categories they know little or nothing about.
Every Academy member belongs to one of 17 branches, and during the first round of nomination voting, each branch’s members can weigh in only on best picture and on the categories that correlate to the branch to which they belong, in which they have demonstrated expertise. (And if they wish to, they can volunteer to serve on committees like those that choose the best foreign-language film noms.) But for the second round of voting, which selects the winners from among the nominees, every member is allowed to vote in every category.
What happens between rounds one and two that suddenly qualifies a makeup artist to opine about acting or a screenwriter to decide what constitutes best costume design? Nothing, of course — and members are the first to admit this. Many are open about the fact that they have no idea what the difference is between sound editing and sound mixing, but they vote in those categories anyway — usually for the movie they liked best as an overall production — because they are invited to.
The byproduct of letting everyone vote for everything, instead of just the categories they really understand, is that some nominees win awards they don’t “deserve” because of coattail voting. For example, no nominee for best visual effects that also was nominated for best picture ever has lost to a nominee for best visual effects that wasn’t nominated for best picture. Some deserving winners also have been shut out — like Roger Deakins, arguably the most venerated cinematographer working today, who is 0-for-12 at the Oscars because his peers repeatedly nominate him but then are outvoted by people who don’t understand their craft as well.
There is a simple and obvious solution: Limit members, in the second round, to the same categories they were limited to in the first. What possible argument could there be for doing otherwise?
4. Arbitrate the acting categories
It’s time for the Academy to put an end to so-called “category fraud,” the act of campaigning for a performer to receive a nomination in one category — lead or supporting — even though he or she clearly should be considered in the other, all in an attempt to improve the likelihood of garnering a nom and/or a win.
Ever since the fall of the studio system, which clearly delineated lead performers from character actors, distributors and talent frequently have sought to game the system, usually by claiming that co-lead performances are supporting performances, since there often is less competition in the supporting categories.
The problem is common not only at the Oscars, but also at every other awards show. SAG-AFTRA opts to let talent determine which category they wish to compete in at the SAG Awards, while the Hollywood Foreign Press Association makes these determinations, somewhat arbitrarily, for the Golden Globe Awards. The Academy, meanwhile, leaves the matter up to its acting branch members, who are susceptible to manipulation.
Here’s how to fix this: The actors branch of the Academy — its most populous — should determine a certain percentage of run time (perhaps 50 percent) below which a performance automatically would be considered a supporting role and above which it automatically would be considered a leading one. Contenders who dispute the appropriateness of their categorization would be welcome to appeal to the branch’s three representatives on the Board of Governors, who would make the final determination.
5. Get the shorts off the telecast
The Academy Awards are supposed to celebrate and promote filmmaking — and that goal can and should be achieved without boring people to death during parts of a telecast that runs too long, too late and features too many awards (24 of them). The best fix: Present the animated short, documentary short and live- action short Oscars 30 minutes prior to the televised portion of the ceremony — at the Dolby Theatre, with everyone in their seats and acceptance speeches welcomed —just as categories that mean little to people outside of the theater industry are presented before the televised portion of Broadway’s Tony Awards.
Nobody is arguing that shorts aren’t important — just that they aren’t important to 99.99 percent of people watching the Oscar telecast, who lack the ability and/or the desire to seek out and watch them. The only reason they’re celebrated at the Oscars in the first place is because Margaret Herrick, the Academy’s original librarian, was passionate about them and forced them down the throat of a resistant Board of Governors. (Check out the diaries of Charles Brackett, Academy president from 1949-55, to get a sense of what an annoyance this category was.)
The reality is, shorts Oscars have no more — and arguably less — business being on the telecast than the many other important honors the Academy presents at its Sci-Tech Awards, a lovely dinner held two weeks before the Oscars, or at the Governors Awards, an evening in November at which special prizes that once were a part of the telecast — honorary Oscars, the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award — are now presented.
So why have shorts remained on the telecast? Because the Academy’s Short Films and Feature Animation Branch, which accounts for just three of the 51 seats on its Board of Governors, threatens to make a stink if things change, just as they did 23 years ago, when a change last was attempted (spawning the immortal headline, “Academy Drops Its Shorts”). That, in turn, stokes fear in the hearts of the governors of other below-the-line branches that their categories could be next.
That’s nonsense, of course, because people can easily see and are interested in the films recognized in those other categories, which, despite the Academy’s best efforts, simply cannot be said for the shorts.
Change Is Nothing New at the Academy
There have been significant shifts in Oscar rules in recent years.
Best Picture Expands
In the wake of the best picture snub of 2008’s The Dark Knight, the Academy expanded the category beyond five for the first time since 1943 (the year for which Casablanca won). Hoping to bring into the fold more fan-friendly pics, the new rules initially guaranteed 10 nominees, but, after two years in which smaller films continued to dominate, the procedure was changed again so there could be anywhere from five to 10 nominees, depending on vote totals.
Doc Voting Opens Up
At the urging of Michael Moore, who represented the documentary branch on the Academy’s Board of Governors from 2010-13, the Academy agreed in 2012 to allow all of its members to vote for the winner of the feature doc Oscar, rather than just those who could prove they’d seen them all. In 2013, it expanded that approach to the categories recognizing foreign-language films and shorts (animated, doc and live-action).
The End of Screeners?
The Academy, according to sources, now is engaged in an effort to eliminate hard-copy screeners by creating a password-protected streaming service that will enable studios to upload films for consideration by Oscar voters. It is said to be foolproof, which is essential in light of the fact that so many Academy members are older and/ or technologically challenged.
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