Academy Members Sound Off On Oscar Voting Issues (Analysis)

As e-ballot snafus and a new voting timetable lead to a year-end crunch, THR talks with members about the rules changes and their experiences
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An abbreviated version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 11, 2013, issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

As Academy members select the nominees for the 85th Oscars -- phase one voting began Dec. 17 and will close Jan. 4 -- they are feeling the impact of two major changes to the voting process that were implemented by the board of governors: Nomination ballots can be cast online, but the deadline to submit them has been moved up nine days. (That number was 10 days, but the Academy extended the voting deadline by 24 hours on Dec. 31.)

These might not sound like earth-shattering developments, but they have significantly altered the balloting experience of the Academy's roughly 5,700 voting members and also might impact the sorts of nominees those members select. The Hollywood Reporter first reported on this situation Dec. 27 after reaching out to a considerable number of voters and spoke a whole new crop for this follow-up story -- virtually none of whom had discussed e-voting publicly.

All members who opted to forsake a paper ballot in favor of an e-vote -- a "great majority," according to an Academy spokesperson -- were asked to create a special password for the voting site that met highly specific criteria. When they went to log in to the site, though, many said their passwords were rejected, even though they made sure to enter them correctly. After three tries, they say, the site locked them out, and they were forced to call a helpline set up by the Academy to assist people experiencing problems. Some then were given another password but told they had to wait 24 hours before attempting to log in again; others were told they had to wait to receive a new password via snail mail.

"We have to balance the opposing needs of convenience and security," an Academy spokesperson told THR, adding that most issues stemmed from members "forgetting or misusing passwords" and that intricate passwords are a necessary evil of e-voting.

Many interpreted that as a hint that the user issues were not the result of a faulty website but rather with members who were unable to remember or properly type their passwords -- something that was plausible, since average age of Academy members hovers around 60. If this is the case, and older voters participate less in this year's voting than young voters, it probably would weaken the strength of such traditional Oscar bait as Les Miserables and Lincoln and help edgier, younger-skewing contenders such as Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom or Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master.

However, documentary branch member Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) wants to dispel any notion that it's just older people without tech-savvy who are experiencing issues with the website. "There's even some young farts like myself that are having problems," the 42-year-old filmmaker says. "It's not like it's the first time I've ever logged on to a computer."

When Spurlock called the Academy helpline after finding that he was unable to log in, he recalls: “[The operator] says to me, ‘Well, you’re obviously entering the wrong password.’ I said: ‘I’m putting in the right password. I know what I filled out.' When he asked whether a new password could be e-mailed to him, he says the operator told him it could only be sent via U.S. mail. Concerned that it wouldn’t arrive in time, he asked to be FedEx-ed a paper ballot, but he received only one of the two forms that he is entitled to fill out as a member of the documentary branch -- not the best picture ballot. “I still haven’t gotten that,” he says.

Stories like that could be why many members opted not to use the e-voting system. For instance, when producers branch member Don Murphy (Transformers) was asked on Facebook whether he voted online, he replied: "No. Too much work.”

Of the many who have experienced problems with e-voting, "There will probably be a large percentage of people who will just say, 'Screw it,' and not even vote this year," one member speculates.

However, in a statement to THR -- provided just hours before the Academy extended its voting deadline -- Academy COO Ric Robertson urged calm: “The idea that electronic voting will depress participation is without basis. Nominations voting patterns remain consistent with those of previous years, and we have every reason to expect that this will be a great Oscar season.”

Others also are calling for more patience with the new system. "While there may be kinks that need to be worked out, the move to e-voting makes complete sense," posits producers branch member Celine Rattray (The Kids Are All Right). "Over time, it will streamline and speed up the process. It will also make it easier for voters to take part regardless of their location, therefore increasing participation. BAFTA adopted it in 2003, and it has become more efficient each year." Adds Rattray's branch colleague Robert Evans (Chinatown), "There are imperfections in every [system]."

As for the timetable change, the Academy said, when it was first announced in September, that it was part of "an effort to provide members and the public a longer period of time to see the nominated films" during phase two. Most voters that THR spoke with, however, seem to feel that this makes no sense -- even if they will not say so on the record for fear of offending the Academy -- because they are supposed to see the films before they are nominated, not after. In fact, most say, they would have benefited from a longer phase one, since they didn't even have enough time to see all the high-profile films they were supposed to see when they had 10 more days to do so.

“Boggles my mind how anyone can keep up with all the movies and early deadline,” Tom Ortenberg, CEO of Open Road Films, wrote on Facebook.

But the change does have some defenders. "I think it actually helps to make better judgments," says directors branch member James Toback (Fingers), "because if you're seeing everything in a contracted period of time when you're forced into making these comparative value judgments, you're more likely to make them legitimately -- or as legitimately as possible."

The counter-argument is that the increased time crunch will disadvantage small gems and end-of-the-year releases that members might otherwise have had time to discover and almost certainly will result in more nominations for films from major studios that could afford to spend big money to help them get noticed during phase one. Toback grants that there is a "direct correlation between money and awareness. If it doesn't have money behind it, it's just not gonna be on anybody's map."

(In a related move that many found bizarre, the Academy, instead of banning studio-funded promotional events during phase one, when such an action might help to level the playing field, decided to leave them virtually unregulated, opting instead to ban them during phase two.)

Oren Moverman (The Messenger), who joined the Academy's writers branch this year, tells THR: “These changes have their own internal logic. I like them. Of course, like going from silent movies to sound, film to digital or theaters to VOD, the movie world is always initially uneasy with change, but these new things are all about efficiency, modernizing and marching to our own drum.”

He adds, "I am sure everyone will adapt."