Holding Oscars earlier would be tricky

Analysis: Release schedules, TV promotion would be affected

Hollywood's awards season is kind of like the weather: Everyone complains about it, but nobody does much about it.

Even before the final envelopes are opened at the Oscars each year, campaigners are lamenting that the process has grown too expensive; too many events crowd the limelight; and mostly that the season, which begins in early December and this year runs through the Academy Awards in late February, is just too damn long.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a special pet peeve: Too many other awards shows have muscled into its territory, forcing eventual Oscar winners to repeat their acceptance speeches as they pick up precursor kudos, and, arguably, damaging the Oscar broadcast's ratings on ABC by making the show feel less special and more akin to a rerun.

As a result, within Academy circles there have been frequent conversations about holding the awards earlier. In 2004, the awards -- traditionally held in late March or early April -- moved into February for the first time. Last year, the show shifted to March 7 to avoid going head-to-head with the Vancouver Olympics' closing ceremonies, but the 83rd Academy Awards are sliding to Feb. 27.

But should the Oscars be held even earlier? That topic came up at Tuesday's meeting of the Academy's board of governors. And when word of the discussion leaked out, folks were in a tizzy about the prospects that the next Oscars might abruptly shift to January.

Not so, the Academy quickly asserted Wednesday. The 83rd Academy Awards, which Bruce Cohen and Don Mischer have just been selected to produce, aren't moving from the announced Feb. 27 date.

But while it has set itself no deadline for a decision, the Academy admitted it's continuing to discuss a change, possibly in 2012.

"There are a number of questions still to be answered and challenges to be addressed with regard to moving the show to an earlier date," it said. "The Academy governors and staff have been and will continue to look into those questions and challenges ... This idea is simply under consideration and being explored as a possibility."

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If the Oscars were to move into mid-February, it wouldn't seriously upend the current awards season calendar. (And the Academy could probably squeeze a week or two out of its current voting timetable without too much trouble.) But shifting into January would have serious repercussions for the rhythm of awards season, beginning with release schedules.

Currently, most Academy members, quite happily, use the Christmas holidays and much of January to screen competing movies.

Earlier nomination deadlines would force that process to begin earlier in October and November and could, theoretically, disadvantage some of the December releases.

That probably wouldn't draw objections from the major studios, which, as they gorge on popcorn movies, have surrendered a lot of the awards ground to their specialty units and the indie film companies.

Last year, for example, the studios released only two eventual best picture nominees in December -- Paramount's "Up in the Air" and Fox's "Avatar" -- so the studios could shift their handful of contenders into an October/November release corridor without too much difficulty.

It's a different matter for the indies, who now use the protracted awards season to slowly roll out many of their films.

Last year, Fox Searchlight opened "Crazy Heart," which ultimately scored three Oscar noms and two wins, in four theaters on Dec. 18, but didn't begin to widen it to more than 800 theaters until Feb. 5, post nominations. And it didn't reach its peak of 1,361 theaters until the weekend after the Oscars as it chugged its way to an eventual $39 million domestic gross.

Of course, the smaller films could simply roll out earlier, but indie distributors worry that will cost them more money since they'll be buying more advertising time in a month like December when they have to compete with big studio TV buys as well as all the Christmas season advertisers.

If the push to move Oscar dates starts developing real momentum, it could end up pitting the indies against the majors in a repeat of the Great Screener War that broke out in 2003.

But, argue proponents of an Oscar move, shifting the show to January would bring in more viewers, which could, in turn, benefit all the nominated films.

However, that proposition remains untested. If the Oscars were to move into the third or fourth weekend of January, what's to prevent the Golden Globes, which already air in mid-January, and possibly the SAG Awards as well, from beating the Oscars to air? In fact, the TV schedule could end up with three awards shows on three successive weekends, with the Oscars still coming last.

If ratings are the goal, it's hard to see how an abbreviated season necessarily ups the odds of improving the numbers, especially since the ratings seem to be more a function of the popularity of the nominated movies than the calendar itself. With "Avatar" in the mix, 41.3 million people tuned in to this year's show, a 14% increase from the previous year. Would that number have been dramatically different if the Oscars had taken place in January rather than March?

If there's anything to be said for its current calendar, it's that the Academy is now able to use most of February for a series of promotional events designed to hype the broadcast. A rush to air could sacrifice some of those opportunities.

Yes, it's true that for its major players, the current awards season can feel like a long slog. But a dramatic change risks turning it into nothing but a blur.