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I am as big a fan and student of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and its annual Academy Awards ceremony as anyone, but I have to say that I am dismayed by the manner in which it has decided to try to crack down on awards “campaigning.”
Let me stipulate that I not only understand the concerns of the Academy, but sympathize with them. Whether or not the voting habits of Academy members are actually swayed by the star-studded Q&As, cocktail parties and dinners to which they are invited throughout the awards season is besides the point; the perception is that they are, and that is a problem. Indeed, if the public, en masse, comes to feel that Oscars can be “bought,” rather than earned purely on the merits, it will diminish the significance of an Oscar and, in turn, the cultural value placed upon the Academy Awards, which are the hallmark and chief financial source of the Academy. I get it.
But the new rules that the Academy announced Wednesday — which, among other things, forbid members with films in the race from commenting negatively about other films in the race via social media and, post nominations, from attending more than two non-screening events that celebrate a nominated movie or individual — tread on dangerous ground, ground that is even reminiscent — unintentionally, I’m sure — of the darkest chapter in Hollywood history, when people in the industry were professionally punished for exercising their Constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech and expression. (The Academy’s president told another publication, “The beauty of this system is people inform us on everyone else.”)
These new rules inherently involve the Academy in the business of investigating its members (which seems impractical) and judging which of their words and actions cross a vague line (which seems wrong).
With regard to the Tweeting rule: What’s the real difference between talking and Tweeting? Can an Academy member still say what he or she can no longer Tweet? Will he or she be punished if a journalist reports overhearing him or her making a disparaging comment about a film to a group of friends after a screening, when people tend to exchange opinions? Aren’t Academy members allowed to have and civilly express opinions about films like anyone else?
With regard to the post-nominations restrictions: At what point does a festival tribute or a gathering of friends become a campaign event? Is there a specific number of people that cannot be exceeded? And who is going to tell someone like Warren Beatty or Annette Bening that they can’t invite over a bunch of their friends (who happen to work in the same industry as them) for dinner because one of them has been nominated and the get-together might be construed as a promotional stop? And is the Santa Barbara International Film Festival — which is built around tributes to filmmakers and actors who tend to be nominees, but are invited months before nominations are announced — still kosher to attend?
The biggest concern that I have about these new rules, though, is that they will actually lead to a dirtier awards season. Awards campaigns have always been waged in one form or another (i.e. during Hollywood’s “Golden Age,” some studio chiefs put immense pressure on their studio’s employees to vote as a block for a specific film or performance … or else), and the studio and awards strategists who have been orchestrating them for years aren’t just suddenly going to stop and disappear (old habits die hard). Instead, these rules — like prohibition — will simply drive the frowned-upon behavior “underground,” where things can get very dirty (see the various whisper/smear campaigns of awards seasons past for a small sense of what could become the new normal), as opposed to out in the open, where at least we all can see what we’re dealing with.
Sure, the Academy can suspend or expel its members for any reason that it pleases (although I imagine that these new rules could result in a legal challenge from an expelled/aggrieved member that would change that), but should it for these reasons? I don’t think so. To me, they should pick their battles, and pick battles that can actually be won. Indeed, another thing that the new rules do is completely de-regulate the pre-nominations “phase one” period. I suspect that the reason for this is not that the Academy condones the style of awards campaigning that takes place within phase one but not within “phase two,” but because it recognizes that it is virtually impossible to regulate it — only, during phase two, it might have more leverage to scare people into behaving better since, at that stage, they have more to lose (bad PR could stunt the prospects of a nomination turning into a win). Moreover, as many have observed over the last 24-hours, opening up phase one can actually have some positive effects — not the least of which is getting more Academy members to see more of the movies on which they are asked to vote — and the same could be true of phase two. Sure, it gives the “haves” an advantage over the “have nots,” but doesn’t that advantage already exist when it comes to distribution and marketing? There’s really no getting around that.
I think that the Academy would be best served to apply its phase one philosophy to the entire awards season. It can still frown upon and discourage egregious campaigning, just as members of the press and public will when they hear about it taking place. But should it really be in the business of trying to monitor, gauge, and punish the day-to-day behavior of its members? And, if it feels it must, can it do so equitably and effectively? With genuinely great respect for the Academy, I think not.
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