Oscar change sets off domino effect for film biz

So far, no one has suggested that New Year’s Day be shifted to mid-December. But starting in 2004, every other date in Hollywood’s calendar will be earlier than usual: As Oscar goes, so goes the world.

The 75th Oscar ceremonies will be held next March 23, as scheduled. But the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is targeting Feb. 29, 2004, for the 76th event.

“I think you could consider this a done deal,” AMPAS exec director Bruce Davis tells Variety.

Kudo life as we know it may be changed forever. And Hollywood execs are already getting dizzy as they mull the ripple effect.

  • The studios and independents are going to have to rethink film distribution.

    DreamWorks head of marketing Terry Press says: “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.”

  • “This will hurt smaller movies,” predicts Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein. He says the feeding frenzy will shift to November, but smaller movies will no longer enjoy their December playing times.

  • There will be a shortened period between Oscar nominations and the Oscarcast, which will cut into income for films that capitalize on their noms during those six weeks.

    Tony Angellotti, vet Oscar consultant, frets, “A primary concern, it seems to me, is the potential loss of income for those films nominated and released at year’s end that are still playing strong.”

  • The Golden Globes could be heightened. Currently, the Globes are held about 10 days after Oscar nomination ballots are mailed. Under the new plan, the Globes would be held right around the time the Oscar nom ballots are due — meaning the buildup to both events would be the same time frame.

  • TV networks and other awards shows are rushing to schedule earlier berths. The Academy hopes that the scramble will eliminate some of the other awards shows.

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 like “Monster’s Ball” might have a harder time building momentum.

New Line prez of domestic marketing Russell Schwartz is one of those who embrace a date change.

“I think it’s a good idea,” Schwartz says. “The award season goes on too long; there’s no question that there are too many award shows. And if they compress the season, it’s better for moving talent, and it might unclog some of that end-of-the-year glut.”

And “glut” is the word. This year, more than a dozen potential Oscar pics are slated to bow in the last two weeks of December.

That logjam has always presented a problem for Acad voters, most of whom are working and have families.

“They can’t just drop everything and spend December watching movies,” Davis says. “So the question becomes: How many of the December openers can the voters catch up with in January?”

Davis says the flood of December openers “is almost a perfect example of a self-fulfilling prophecy”: Since studios believe that a late-year film will be fresher and more favorable in voters’ minds, they save their best works for the end of the year.

Lions Gate Film Releasing prez Tom Ortenberg, says: “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.”

Jeffrey Godsick, exec VP of publicity at Fox, agrees. “Crunching the time could impact small pictures. Everything is more crowded now; something’s going to have to settle out of it. The marketplace can expand for event movies but there’s only so much room to expand.”

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 points out.

On June 25, the AMPAS board voted for an earlier Oscarcast — as a two-year experiment. The Academy hasn’t issued a revamped calendar for all its Oscar events, but nominations will probably be announced in late January. That means the traditional six-week period between noms and awards would be reduced to four weeks.

“Any year-end release is in danger of losing big time,” sighs one exec. “That six-week period is income time for the studios with films in release.”

Some of that lost money may be offset in reduced campaign spending, but there’s no guarantee.

“I don’t know that the studios will spend less money, but they may spend it in different arenas,” says one Oscar vet.

New Line’s Schwartz adds, “The Academy season probably would not change in terms in length, just in its chronology on the calendar.”

But money wasn’t the impetus behind the Academy’s decision. It was integrity.

Acad honcho Davis says “They (the Academy board members) were looking at the fact that ratings have been ticking downward over the years.”

For example, the 73rd annual ceremony, telecast on March 25, 2001, featured mega-star nominees like Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks, presenters such as Tom Cruise, Jennifer Lopez and Russell Crowe, and performers ranging from Bjork to Bob Dylan to Itzhak Perlman. Still, it had 3.3 million fewer viewers than the previous year, which had a less starry lineup.

Acad members figured a lot of this viewer erosion was due to the glut of awards shows.

“Awards season has turned into a marathon,” laughs Academy prez Frank Pierson. “If other people move their dates up, maybe we can make it less of a marathon and more of a film festival.”

Angellotti says of the board decision: “They’re doing this conscientiously and with best of intentions. It’s important to everyone in the industry that the Oscar show do well.”

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

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

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

Ron Roecker, rep for Grammy parent the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, avers, “February is a tough time, so it should be interesting to see how they’re going to market this in a sweeps environment.”

He says NARAS might consider moving the Grammy show one or two weeks at most.

The Golden Globes and the AFI Awards presumably are stationary, since those awards have been held in January. But most other film awards are moving, acknowledging that they’re in Oscar’s shadow.

On July 18, the British Academy of Film & Television Arts announced it’s moving its 2004 ceremony to Feb. 8.

Stephen Woolley, outgoing chair of the org’s film committee, says the move was “necessary in light of the Oscars’ move to earlier in the year, as to have our awards ceremony just one week before would not work for the industry as a whole.”

The SAG Awards are the only televised guild event, but also will probably shift.

SAG Awards publicist Rosalind Jarrett echoed that SAG would be “closely watching” the Oscar date change. In a contingency plan, the DGA has booked two dates for its awards show in 2004 — Feb. 7 and March 6.

Producers Guild of America’s PGA Awards co-chairs Bruce Cohen and Debra Hill say, “As soon as the Academy made their announcement, we took steps to move the PGA Awards in respect of the Academy’s new date.” The 15th annual PGA Awards will be held Jan. 25, 2004. (This year, the PGA held its fete March 3.)

“We are looking at other dates, as are all the other awards shows,” Writers Guild of America spokeswoman Cheryl Rhoden says.

But, like DreamWorks’ Press, Rhoden raises the question of how the date will affect outco
me. An earlier date could cut the voting period for WGA 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 outcome, 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.”

Two other considerations: overseas voters and screening cassettes.

In terms of membership, London has the third-largest contingent of Acad voters. 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?

“Obviously, it’s the studio’s call,” says Judi Schwam, kudos consultant who’s working with WB again. “We’re in the business first and foremost of making movies, and we want to give the voters every opportunity to see a film in the theater first.”

For the record, the Academy’s shift in dates is not the first. Starting with the March 16, 1934, ceremony, Oscar was held in late February/early March for more than a decade. In 1948, it began to shift to late March and early April.

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

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

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