The Academy's Decision to Use e-Voting Could Have Far-Reaching Implications (Analysis)

Billy Crystal Oscars 2011
Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

Comedian Billy Crystal arrives on stage to present an award at the 83rd Annual Academy Awards held at the Kodak Theatre on February 27, 2011 in Hollywood, California.

This morning's announcement by the Academy that next year's Oscar voting will be conducted via electronic voting -- also known as "e-voting" -- could have far-reaching implications.

The Length of the Awards Season

Based on previously-expressed sentiments of the Academy and its leadership, it seems quite possible to me that this move was motivated, at least in part, by a desire to condense the length of the awards season and, in so doing, reduce the size and influence of awards "campaigns" funded by studios and public relations firms. Indeed, e-ballots results could be tabulated much faster than paper ballots, which take a considerable amount of time -- time spent in transit to voters, time in transit back from voters, and time to be opened, reviewed, and tabulated.

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Consider the Academy's timetable for this awards season. Paper ballots to determine the Oscar nominees were mailed to Academy members on 12/27, received a few days later, due back at the Academy by 1/13, and tabulated over the course of the next several days. In other words, that one step of determining the nominees took more than two weeks to be completed, whereas an e-ballot could be made available to members over the span of just a couple of days and produce a set of nominees as soon as voting closes. The same is obviously true for the second phase of voting. This year's paper ballots to determine the Oscar winners will only be mailed on 2/1, received by voters a few days after not, and are not due back to at the Academy until 2/21. That's another three weeks of time that could be saved by e-voting.

If the Academy elects to conduct e-voting to determine the Oscar nominees on 12/27 of next year -- the same day that paper ballots were mailed out this year -- it could, hypothetically, announce its nominees within a matter of days, and then hold its show just days thereafter.

Other Awards Shows

Over the past 30 years, the number of awards shows that precede the Oscars -- and, in so doing, position themselves as important precursors to/predictors of it -- has exploded. Among them are the Indie Spirit Awards (first held in 1984), the Producers Guild of America Awards (first held in 1990), the Screen Actors Guild Awards (first held in 1995), and the Critics' Choice Awards (first held in 1996). While these events may be welcomed by the industry insiders who put them on, the journalists who need news to cover, and the fans at home who watch them, they have also rendered the actual Oscars telecast somewhat anti-climactic (which may, in part, explain the fairly steady decline in the show's TV ratings).

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If e-voting allows the Academy to move up its show to early January, ahead of most of those awards shows that have heretofore piggy-backed on them, then that could conceivably change. Those shows wouldn't go away, but they would be forced to move up their dates (it would be too anti-climactic for them to take place after the Oscars) and would consequently become less important (some studios might not even have finished or released some of their films in time to be considered for those early groups). It would certainly be an aggressive move on the part of the Academy, but one that they might feel forced to make to protect the position of their own awards show in the face of growing competition.

Older Academy Members

When the Academy announced back in September that studios are now permitted to provide screeners of their films to its members via online streaming, I wrote that doing so would be a much more cost-effective way for studios to get their films before members than sending an actual DVD or Blu-Ray, but might also result in older members being left out of the process, since many of them are not tech-savvy enough to know how to stream a film. The full story is that more than a few members don't even have computers and/or know how to use the Internet, which would preclude them not only from streaming screeners, but also from filling out an e-ballot.

I suppose that the Academy could reach out to members to see which of them would still prefer a paper ballot to an e-ballot, and then instruct its e-voting partners Everyone Counts and PricewaterhouseCoopers to shut off those voters' e-voting capability, but the Academy's announcement today makes no mention of any intent to take such steps. An Academy representative reached today by THR would only say, "We're working on the specific details, however the Academy will ensure each voting member has opportunity to participate fully in the process."