Unanswered questions, unweighed responses add doubt

Starting in 2004, the Oscars will absolutely, definitely be held a month earlier than usual. Well, maybe.

The board of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences voted June 25 to move up the date of the ceremonies to February, and director of communications John Pavlik said, “Internally, it’s do-able. It’s difficult, but we can do it.”

However, many in Hollywood doubt the shift will happen.

The target date is Sunday, Feb. 29, 2004. But there are many unanswered questions and many people who haven’t weighed in yet. Questions include whether the Academy could get the necessary city-traffic-police permits for such a date, whether it could book a theater (presumably the Kodak) and what ABC thinks of the idea.

Officially, the network has no comment.

The vote ostensibly was stirred by board members concerned over this year’s intense and expensive campaign period, which included mudslinging over such pics as “A Beautiful Mind.”

However, one vet campaigner doubts that is the real reason: “It’s about the Academy protecting their asset.”

Another awards strategist agreed: “I don’t think it’s about what we do. I think it’s about all the other awards shows, which dilute the Oscars.” The Academy has been mulling a shift in dates for years, as it feels the glut of kudocasts undercuts suspense and interest in its show.

And there’s the question of ratings: This year, the March 24 Oscarcast saw its viewership dip to 41.8 million, down from 43 million last year.

The studios have yet to weigh in — and many AMPAS board members work for studios.

The majors presumably would save money on a shorter ad campaign period. However, one campaigner said the “for your consideration” newspaper ads, screenings and mailing of vidcassettes and DVDs simply would be moved up earlier.

The board did not vote on the specifics of the entire Academy Awards timetable, but presumably nominations similarly would be moved up earlier.

One Oscar vet pointed out that films such as “Forrest Gump” or “Schindler’s List” still would have high voter awareness in a shifted timetable, but it’s a question mark whether a late-year opener from an independent distrib, such as Lions Gate’s “Monster’s Ball,” could muster similar clout in a shorter period.

Even in a late-February slot, the Oscars still would be preceded by several kudocasts, including the AFI Awards, Golden Globes and BAFTA Awards, as well as critics prizes. (The SAG Awards usually are held in early March.)

Most people contacted declined to speak on the record, for fear of insulting the board members. About three-quarters of the 40 members were at the June 25 vote. Though many felt they acted sincerely, most considered the vote premature, without sufficient exploration. While the idea of a move is worth exploring, “It’s too soon to be this firm about it,” said one Oscar veteran.

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