Players feel hamstrung by ban on CD mailings

Every year, it seems, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ music branch is embroiled in at least one controversy.

This year there are two, although they are fairly mild by comparison with past brouhahas: the banning of CD mailings to Oscar voters; and whether the new song-entry bake-off process is working. Both appear to be “works in progress” being monitored by Oscar execs.

In August, the Academy banned mailings to members of all “recordings, sheet music (and) music videos of eligible songs or scores,” a longtime practice of studios and publicists. Reason: Member complaints that they were inundated with CDs at Oscar time, and the idea that members are supposed to vote based on how the music works as part of the film, not on its own.

The decision is still being debated, especially at the studio level, and there is no consensus. Fox Music president Robert Kraft thinks “the disconnect in the new rule is that music branch members are painfully aware that the score you hear in the final picture often does not reflect the quality or intention of the composer’s work.

“Original movie scores are at the mercy of the filmmakers,” Kraft adds. “They can be mixed poorly, chopped into fragments, buried under sound effects, moved around by the directors, replaced by songs … . Composers — and, by extension, the studios — are at a terrible disadvantage with the new rule, as the focus of the composer’s original musical efforts should be accessible in addition to the way that the score is represented in the final film.”

New Line Cinema Music president Paul Broucek says, “It’s disappointing, and it presents a new challenge so that people who need to hear the score are the best-informed they can be. We’re still figuring it out.”

Universal Film Music president Kathy Nelson, however, likes the new rule. “It’s not really fair to judge music, whether song or score, without the content that it’s meant for,” she says. “It’s our responsibility not just to listen to the music but to watch the movie. You might love the music, but it might be horrible in the movie.”

Bruce Broughton, one of three music-branch governors, acknowledged that the decision has caused some grumbling among members, and that the branch executive committee will probably “revisit the decision” in the weeks ahead. One committee member, who asked not to be identified, says he is convinced the decision will be reversed for next year because there are still plenty of members who take advantage of “for your consideration” CDs as a way of helping them decide which films to see during Oscar season. (In fact, the studios are still pressing them up and sending them out, mostly to Golden Globe and BAFTA voters.)

This year will mark the third in which song nominees are determined by a bake-off, where music-branch members attend specially arranged New York and L.A. screenings where all of the eligible songs are seen in their original film contexts, and the nominees are chosen using a weighted-voting system.

“I think it’s fair,” says Broughton. “You’re evaluating a song based on how well it works in the picture, and how creative or artistic the effort is.”

Some members, and studio execs, have expressed concern that too few members are showing up for the bake-offs. Two members who attended last year’s L.A. screening estimated only about 30-40 were present. The music branch currently has 235 voting members (composers, songwriters and music editors, most of whom live in L.A.). Kraft says that such a small number “might not represent a consensus by the branch at large. Just look at the results over the past few years, and you know the process is broken.”

Executive committee chairman Charles Bernstein declines to say how many are attending, offering only that it was “an excellent representation of the branch, more than enough to make an informed decision,” although he adds, “It’s always good to get more.”

Two years ago only three songs were nominated (and the winner was “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” still a head-scratcher for many) and last year three of the five were from the same film (“Dreamgirls”).

Broucek suggested the Academy might invest in a members-only online streaming site. “Let’s take advantage of the Internet,” he says, “and have a site where people can go and review all the categories, including music.”

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