How the Oscar Grinch stole Christmas

The awards season is traditionally an annual event akin to tax season: always time-consuming and — depending on the kind of year you had — sometimes disconcerting.

This year, though, the revised kudos period is more like a threatened IRS audit, with plenty of uncertainty about how things will ultimately add up.

The tightest vise grip concerns the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ decision to move up the Oscar ceremony by a month to February.

And nerves were frazzled even more after the Motion Picture Assn. of America’s initial ban of the decade-old practice of mailing screeners to Acad voters in order to crackdown on piracy.

The resulting firestorm involved everyone from the specialty divisions to prominent filmmakers to high-profile actors crying foul. Though screeners will now be mailed to Oscar voters, the controversy has put many Oscar campaigns on hold, as studios wait for the dust to settle.

As if all this weren’t chaotic enough, Oscar campaign planners — a class of professionals that the Academy actually disavows — were already mulling over the impact of a new set of AMPAS regulations and standards, the latter of which are meant to steer the Oscar race out of “treacherous ethical waters.”

“People will be very mindful of the Academy guidelines,” says United Artists topper Bingham Ray, “but I would be very surprised if it’s a kinder, gentler season.”

Ray, who is pushing “Pieces of April,” says that the shortened Oscar season won’t likely cut the resources that studios pour into their campaigns. “Similar amounts will be spent, but in a much more concentrated period.”

Home for the holidays?

The ingredients of a tumultuous stew seem to be coming together, especially when you consider that the end of the year, when the entertainment community traditionally vacates Hollywood, could become a frenzied period of screenings and receptions.

Under the new Academy schedule, Oscar nomination ballots will be mailed Jan. 2 and will be due back Jan. 17, meaning that for-your-consideration obligations may interfere with some people’s holiday plans. The Hollywood tradition of mixing work and play during the holidays — i.e., those trips to Maui and Aspen with a satchel stuffed with screeners — looks increasingly endangered.

Ironically, however, the screenings set up in those ski/surf resorts will take on even more importance now that skeds are compressed.

As for Grinch-like behavior, employees of Lions Gate, which is pushing “Shattered Glass,” “The Cooler” and “The Girl With the Pearl Earring,” will not be taking personal vacations from November until after the Oscar ceremony Feb. 29.

“We’re going to be very busy at Lions Gate this holiday season,” says prexy Tom Ortenberg. “The awards season has become an all-hands operation and all our senior executives have been involved. Nobody is going to take time off the last few months of the year.”

So far, the agencies, which customarily close down for two weeks around Christmas and New Year’s Day, are sticking to the tradition. But they are eyeing each other’s plans, and if one agency decides to cut its break short, expect others to follow suit.

Cynthia Swartz, Miramax inhouse Oscar campaign planner, says she expects to see the biggest change after the nominations are announced. “There used to be a breather, and I used to be able to take a vacation the first week of February.” She’s nixed those plans as the Acad plans to send out final ballots Feb. 4.

Lost in transition

Key among Oscar campaigners’ worries is whether the scheduling of nomination balloting in the first two weeks of January will fatigue voters who will have to absorb too many films during the holidays. To compensate for the modified screener situation, Oscar planners will be pushing even harder to get voters to see their movies, whether in early December before the holidays or by organizing more screenings at far-flung winter vacation spots.

“I’ve always looked forward to watching as many films as possible over the holidays and the first week of January before ballots arrived,” says Oscar strategist Tony Angellotti, “Under the new schedule, it seems I’m going to have to watch more over the holidays than I’m able to because of the shortened balloting period. That pressure doesn’t seem to benefit anyone.”

The result, says awards consultant Michelle Robertson, may be that word of mouth and buzz will become an even more valuable commodity in this awards go-around. “It’s going to be more like a marketing situation,” she says. “If people only have time to see five movies this week, which ones will they see? The ones they already have heard good things about.”

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