Oscar shift sets off chain reaction

Acad move affects film distrib'n, B.O., TV skeds, etc.

On Aug. 8, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences board of governors will convene for the first time since they voted to move up the Oscarcast a month, to Feb. 29, 2004.

Many people in town want details about the switch, such as the dates for mailing ballots and announcement of nominations.

But the top item on next month’s agenda is the election of an Acad president. (Frank Pierson was selected for his one-year term last August.) So it’s possible the board members won’t have time to discuss the finer points — or the ramifications — of their Oscar decision.

But around town, everyone else is debating the move, which will affect everything from film distribution to box office to TV schedules.

DreamWorks head of marketing Terry Press said, “The whole DNA of awards campaigns will change. There is a certain rhythm to Oscar campaigns that will be altered, and that could affect the outcome — but any change in this process is welcome at this point.”

Others are against the move. “This will hurt smaller movies,” predicted Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein.

Jeffrey Godsick, Fox exec VP of publicity, mused, “Crunching the time could impact small pictures. Everything is more crowded now; something’s going to have to settle out of it — there’s only so much room to expand.”

But it’s not just the little films that will be affected: Many majors have tailored their launch of “prestige” pics around Oscar deadlines, and a switch in dates could affect year-end release plans.

In addition, the six weeks between announcement of Oscar noms and the kudocast is a key period for studios to capitalize on nominated pics at the box office. That likely will be shaved to four weeks.

For many people, including Academy staffers, the change means doing the same amount of work but in less time. And a lot of people will have to think twice before making 2003 holiday plans: The week between Christmas and New Year’s has traditionally been a holiday period; now it’s going to be primo campaign time.

Different priorities

The board’s primary concern, of course, was not economy or vacations, but to cement Oscar’s primacy in the annual kudos clutter. “Awards season has turned into a marathon,” said Acad prez Pierson.

AMPAS exec director Bruce Davis added, “They (the Academy board members) were looking at the fact that ratings have been ticking downward over the years.” Acad members figured a lot of this TV viewer erosion was due to the glut of awards shows.

The question is: Will the move accomplish everything they hope?

Weinstein doubts it: “The change will not matter. Other award shows will move to earlier dates, so the Academy won’t accomplish its basic objective.”

Lions Gate Film Releasing prez Tom Ortenberg agrees. “BAFTA, SAG, the Globes, AFI — they’re not going anywhere. It might increase their importance if they all come one after another for four weeks.”

In fact, some think the move could add to the Golden Globes’ importance. The Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. now gives out its awards about 10 days after Oscar nomination ballots are mailed. Under the new plan, the Globes would be held right around the time Oscar nominating ballots are due — meaning the buildup to both events would be in the same time frame.

Oscar’s 75th on schedule

The 75th Oscar ceremonies will be held March 23, as scheduled. But an earlier date for the 76th event, in 2004, will affect other kudocasts.

January has been the usual berth for “The Golden Globes” (on NBC), “The People’s Choice Awards” (CBS), the Broadcast Film Critics’ “Critics Choice Awards” (on E!) and the new “AFI Awards” (CBS). Presumably they will all stay in January.

Meanwhile, February and March shows are moving earlier. Producers Guild of America has already shifted the 15th annual PGA Awards more than a month earlier, to Jan. 25, 2004. The British Academy of Film & Television Arts announced it’s moving its 2004 ceremony to Feb. 8.

The only Hollywood guild award that’s televised, “The SAG Awards” (TNT), also is mulling an earlier perch.

The Directors Guild of America has committed to Feb. 7, 2004, for its awards show. The Writers Guild is eyeing a new date, but nothing is final.

IFP West honchos are in talks about the org’s Spirit Awards, which have traditionally been held the day before the Oscars. The National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences also is considering shifting its Grammy show one or two weeks earlier.

And then there’s the question of how a move will affect B.O.

“The real money is not in the win,” noted Steven Friedlander, distrib chief at Fine Line. “It’s in the weeks between the nominations and the awards.”

Noms aim: late January

The Acad’s target date for announcing noms is late January. Some of the money that’s lost at the box office with a shorter post-noms period may be offset in reduced campaign spending, but there’s no guarantee.

New Line prez of domestic marketing Russell Schwartz added, “The Academy season probably would not change in terms in length, just in its chronology on the calendar.”

Many Oscar pundits and participants are optimistic the move will improve many areas — such as the year-end glut of openings. This year, more than a dozen potential Oscar films are slated to bow in the last two weeks of December.

High-profile year-end movies, such as “A Beautiful Mind,” will always be seen by plenty of awards voters. But the question is whether a smaller pic would have a harder time building momentum.

Release dates affected

Ortenberg said of Lions Gate: “We usually take advantage of the award season. We’d have to release the films earlier, and it would be much more difficult to do those qualifying runs. We’ll play on whatever playing fields they give us. But we’d have to release a ‘Monster’s Ball’ earlier.”

Weinstein says the feeding frenzy will shift to November, and smaller movies will no longer enjoy their December playing times.

WGA spokeswoman Cheryl Rhoden also raises the question of how the date will affect the awards outcome. An earlier date for the WGA could cut the voting period for members from three weeks to about 10 days. “That might have a downward impact on the turnout, but that’s going to be unknown until it actually happens.”

Of course, there’s no way to calculate the effect, but one studio exec agrees with them, pointing to this year’s best actress race. “As the campaign season went on, (front-runner) Sissy Spacek faded, while Halle Berry gained momentum. In a shorter season, Spacek would have won.”

May help early openers

Fox’s Godsick adds that, judging by last year’s experience, films opening earlier in the year could benefit.

“The most interesting aspect of ‘Moulin Rouge’ was the snowball effect. The film needed to be in the market to get people to tell others about it. That was truly a word of mouth movie. Time did help that campaign,” he pointed out.

Two other considerations: overseas voters and screening cassettes.

In membership numbers, London has the third-largest contingent of Acad voters (after L.A. and New York). The question is whether they will have easy access to the nominees.

As for cassettes, Academy rules allowed studios to send them out starting Nov. 1. If, under the accelerated schedule, the Acad permits cassettes in October, the first question is whether films would be ready by that point. But even if they were, would a studio want to send out a cassette then for a film slated to bow in December?

Everyone in the film biz will be watching the two-year experiment. Some are hopeful, some dubious. But as one awards campaigner sums it up, “The earlier date certainly makes everything a little more intense — if that’s possible.”

(Josef Adalian, Peter Bart, Dana Harris, Dade Hayes, Dave McNary and Justin Oppelaar contributed to this report.)

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