Oscars: Campaigns May Change After Party Crackdown, Spike in International Members (Analysis)

Andrew Saffir, Peggy Siegal and Darrin Pfeiffer_Split  - Getty - H 2016
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Andrew Saffir, Peggy Siegal and Darrin Pfeiffer_Split  - Getty - H 2016

Although Hollywood is abuzz about the diversity implications of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' massive 2016 invitation list, the impact of that initiative during the coming Oscar season will probably be fairly limited — the percentage of women and people of color within the organization as a whole will increase by just 2 and 3 percentage points, respectively. But the sheer number of new invitees — particularly those based outside the U.S. — is likely to drive up the costs of Oscar campaigning. And a new campaign regulation that the Academy quietly enacted this week could have a dramatic impact of its own on the way contenders court voters.

In preparation for the 89th Oscar season, the Academy's board of governors revised just a few of the organization's eligibility rules and campaign regulations, but one new provision, announced June 30, could rock the social lives of Academy members, as well as the business model of the small but powerful cadre of publicists who are retained each season by distributors to organize lavish "tastemaker" events for contenders — brunches, lunches, dinners, teas, cocktail parties and assorted other pseudoevents at top-of-the-line establishments — on both coasts. 

The passage in question: "Academy members may not be invited to or attend any non-screening event, party or dinner that is reasonably perceived to unduly influence members or undermine the integrity of the vote. Members who fail to comply with this regulation will be subject to a one-year suspension of membership for first-time violations and expulsion for subsequent violations, as well as all other available remedies."

Effectively, it aims to shut down — at least to Academy members — "excessive hospitality," or some of the higher-end gatherings organized by the likes of The Peggy Siegal Co.'s Peggy Siegal (an Academy member herself who recently was profiled in The New York Times), The Cinema Society's Andrew Saffir, Darin Pfeiffer Consulting's Darin Pfeiffer and independent Colleen Camp. And, as a result, there's already talk of the possibility of a restraint-of-trade legal challenge. One of those affected wrote to me, saying, "It's unfair to force us to remove someone from our invite list because they happen to be an AMPAS member. Also, having worked in the industry for so long, and with the slew of invitations that just went out, it's inevitable that some close friends have become AMPAS members. I don't want to exclude them now simply because they have joined the Academy."

Once the immediate dust-up settles, the likelier course of action is that the event planners will simply ensure, going forward, that all their gatherings are immediately preceded or followed by a screening — most already do that most of the time, but Academy members don't always elect to attend. Another source involved in these events told me, "We also want the Academy members to see the films! But there's no way to compel them to do so. We have days when two people show up to a screening and then 100 show up to lunch. Is the Academy going to take attendance at these?"

Meanwhile, Oscar consultants are beginning to take a look at another factor that could transform current campaign practices: The massive number of people who were just invited to join the Academy. If all 683 of this year's invitees do indeed join the Academy, the ranks of active, voting-eligible members, which numbered 6,261 last year, would swell to nearly 7,000 (assuming some attrition among existing voters), forcing campaigns to reach out to almost 10 percent more voters than they had to lobby last year.

Further complicating that challenge is the fact that a significant portion of the newly invited live outside the U.S. According to the Academy, the new list included 283 international filmmakers from 59 countries. (Previously, the highest number on record was three dozen in 2015.)

For many years, Hollywood — and particularly the Academy, which was founded and for decades funded by the hometown studios — was somewhat xenophobic about talent and films from abroad. Even after international conglomerates purchased most of Hollywood's studios, the Academy remained slow to embrace foreigners, in part because people based outside of L.A., New York and London are unable to take advantage of most of the organization's offerings. But as globalization has led to the industry becoming more international, and as the Academy has sought to embrace diversity of all sorts — starting in 2012 after the hiring of Dawn Hudson as CEO and the one-term election of Hawk Koch as president, and continuing under Cheryl Boone Isaacs' current administration — that attitude has changed.

Campaigners have mastered how to reach voters who live in historic hotbeds of membership — L.A., New York, London and Paris — and, in turn, have been able to provide them with ample opportunity to see contenders on a big screen at local screenings. Now, though, with members hailing from such far-flung places as Thailand and Jordan, screeners are going to become the only way of reaching many members — at least until the Academy unveils a safe and smooth streaming system, which I hear they're working on developing. And this could have unintended consequences.

Screeners will have to be produced and shipped farther and wider, and may even have to carry different types of subtitles, which will add markedly to a campaign's bottom line. And that can't even happen until awards consultants update their membership mailing lists, which will be no easy task in itself. The Academy also will feel an increased financial burden, since it mails all of the documentary, foreign language and short films nominees to every member. But while the Academy has deep pockets, many small distributors are likely to struggle to compete under these new demands. (Additionally, the fact that massive numbers of members will be voting on the basis of screeners could also undercut the prospects of films that truly demand to be seen on the big screen, such as Avatar and Gravity.)

All in all, the Academy and the Oscars are entering uncharted territory, and it will be interesting to see if they can find their way.