Acad putting Oscar race on fast-track

New awards dates swell anxieties

See chartMonday’s announcement of the voting timetable for the 76th Academy Awards did not elicit many surprises in Hollywood — just panic.

Last year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences announced a two-year experiment in which the Oscars will be held Feb. 29, 2004, a month earlier than usual.

On Monday, the org announced the other dates on the sked. But as film-biz execs studied the scrunched-up season, they expressed key concerns.

  • Nomination ballots will be mailed Jan. 2 — only two days after the last qualifying film has opened. A rush of late-December bows (or a one- week, Oscar-qualifying engagement) seems impossible.

  • The abbreviated sked — 15 days between the mailing of ballots and their deadline for receipt — puts a bigger burden on voters to see films in a shorter period of time.

  • The new sked confirms that kudos shows will bump into each other more. For example, the Academy’s Nominees Luncheon will be held Monday, Feb. 9, in Los Angeles. If the BAFTA Awards in London stick to their Feb. 8 plan, contenders will no longer be able to attend both.

  • The voters most affected are likely those who live outside the L.A. and New York areas. The Acad hopes to mail their ballots Dec. 29 — eight days earlier than usual — meaning that they may have a harder time seeing late-year films.

  • Whether a voting member, Academy staffer or studio worker, this is going to be bad for Christmas vacations.

AMPAS exec administrator Ric Robertson said that department heads at the Academy as well as PricewaterhouseCoopers “had several sessions to figure out what we needed to accomplish to meet the Feb. 29 date.”

There was “a certain inevitability” to the dates chosen, once this experiment was set into motion. “The question was, ‘How do we make this work?’ ”

And that’s the key question.

The 76th Annual Academy Awards schedule compresses the ballot and nomination process from 11 weeks into an eight-week window. Last year’s date in parentheses.
Jan. 2, 2004: Nomination ballots mailed (Jan. 10)
Jan. 17: Polls close at 5 p.m. (Jan. 29)
Jan. 27: Nominations announced (Feb. 11)
Feb. 4: Final ballots mailed (Feb. 25)
Feb. 24: Final polls close at 5 p.m. (March 18)
Feb. 29: 76th annual Academy Awards (March 23)

Hard on smaller films

Most everyone contacted agreed that the biggest impact will be on smaller, independent films, which will have a hard time finding voters’ attention if they plan a December platform launch.

This year, everyone will be on a learning curve as they redefine the timing of an awards campaign.

One strategist fretted, “Traditionally, when the ballots first go out (in early January), you’re still screening for SAG and other guilds. If everything is earlier, when do you do those screenings? You can’t do them over the holidays; everyone is gone. And the first half of December everybody is out going to premieres and seeing the big films.”

Another factor is the availability of talent, who will be asked to promote their pics in a shorter period of time.

One publicist pointed to the time crunch for films that are having junkets in mid-December for a Christmas openings. “If you have picture like that, when do you do the rest of your campaign? There’s no time for the press to write their stories, for the Academy voters to see the stories, absorb them and make an informed decision before Jan. 2, when everyone is still in Aspen or on Maui.”

Compression challenge

While the nomination and final voting has been compressed by three weeks, the entry deadlines are virtually the same. For example, the following deadlines are similar to last year’s: Aug. 1, 2003, sci-tech awards entry deadline; Sept. 2, docu entry deadline; Oct. 1, foreign and short-films; Nov. 2, animated film entry; Dec. 1, due date for receipt of forms to qualify films for consideration and entry deadline for music categories.

As before, the awards year ends Dec. 31 at midnight.

When the Academy board decided on the earlier Oscarcast, a key goal was to underline the primacy of the Academy Awards, which some feared had become anticlimactic. One hope was that other kudocasts would fall by the wayside.

Terry Press of DreamWorks is similarly concerned about these things. As for the new schedule, “The Academy is putting its toe in the water. My question is whether it’s enough.”

Certainly no other kudocast seems ready to drop out at this point.

Spokesman Michael Russell said the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., for example, has not announced the Golden Globe Award dates for 2004.

The Globes are usually held on the third Sunday in January — meaning the logical date would be Jan. 18, 2004. But since Oscar ballots are now due Jan. 17, that date would make the Globes less tied to Oscar balloting. Many in town on Monday were predicting the HFPA will shift to Jan. 11 — when Oscar voters still have ballots in hand.

What about campaigns?

Still unanswered are issues concerning Acad campaigning — for example, screening cassettes. In the past, Nov. 1 was the first day a studio could mail out screeners. Acad honchos haven’t yet decided whether that date will be changed.

There are ripple-effect questions: Will cassettes again become the dominant form, since it takes more time to manufacture a DVD? And will piracy issues become more of a concern if screeners are sent out even earlier in a film’s domestic release?

In theory, the new timetable will have less effect on categories such as foreign-lingo films and documentaries, in which contenders are nominated by committee. Those films don’t rely on tapes.

But everyone will be affected. For example, the live-action and animated shorts are first screened for the preliminary reviewing committee in December and early January; this year they will move up to November and December.

Then there is a second round of screenings of the top 10 in each category for the entire branch. Those screenings would move up as well. “It’s just a question of things starting earlier,” said Jon Bloom, a governor and chairman of the short films and feature animation branch exec committee. “The first round will be over by the Christmas holidays.”

Philosophies vary

One major issue concerns campaign techniques, such as ads, Q&A sessions and party-receptions. There are three schools of thought. One says that all the hoopla will simply start earlier. The second theory is that there will be as much, but in a shorter period of time. The third group speculates that campaigning will be lessened.

Folks at the studios and the Academy agreed that a leisurely late-December vacation is pretty much out the window. The Academy will have less time to put out the Reminder List (listing eligible films) and make preparations for ballot mailing. On the studio side, execs and campaigners will need to be available for huddles over campaign tactics and screenings.

“We’ve built a schedule that allows people to have one cup of eggnog on New Year’s Eve,” deadpanned Acad’s Robertson.

Glass half full

But some see the upside. This past Oscar season saw a dizzying amount of campaigning — with the media breathlessly reporting on each twist. Melody Korenbrot, whose Block Korenbrot has consulted on many past awards campaigns, hopes that the new schedule will make things a little saner. “Now maybe the films will speak for themselves.”

“There’s no breathing room now,” says one strategist. “I feel sorry for people who do awards and also have to do Palm Springs (Festival) and Sundance.”

One upside if the Globes moves a week earlier: Since Sundance opens Jan. 15, film execs may no longer be forced to fly to Park City, fly to L.A. for the Globes, then return to Utah.

The new schedule obviously will change things for studio workers, marketing execs and awards campaigners. “But forget about them: This is unfair to voters,” says one studio vet. “It’s forcing people to watch a huge amount of movies in an unbelievably brief period. I can’t imagine whom it benefits — except companies that release big, expensive movies that are still fresh in your mind when you receive the ballot Jan. 3 or 4.”

Summing it all up was one studio PR exec, who pored over the schedule and groaned, “It’s starting again? Please, God, no!”

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