Springsteen among victims of flawed system

In the immortal words of Ronald Reagan: “Here we go again.”

Every year, it seems, someone complains about the Academy music branch and its occasionally head-scratching choices in the song and score Oscar categories.

This year’s “what-the…” began when the best song nominees were announced Jan. 22. There were just three nominees instead of the usual five, and Bruce Springsteen’s song for “The Wrestler” was absent from the list. While 2008 wasn’t exactly a banner year for movie songs, the absence of a full hand of contenders is just as perplexing as the fact that Academy branches for three other disciplines — animated feature, makeup and visual effects — also failed to settle on five worthy nominees.

This year marks only the fifth time in Academy history that the music branch chose just three tunes (two from “Slumdog Millionaire,” one from “Wall-E”). It also happened in 1934, 1935, 1988 and 2005.

But it’s not just critics on the outside who are raising a ruckus. Members inside the music branch are complaining, too, not so much because Springsteen got short shrift — after all, he already has an Oscar for his song from “Philadelphia” — but because some are irritated by the rules and procedures that have been added in recent years. (All spoke anonymously to avoid antagonizing Acad execs.)

“The fact that only three songs are eligible seems to confirm the process is broken,” says one frustrated, past Oscar-nominated songwriter who admits many of this year’s songs were terrible, “but a couple should have been numbers four and five.”

Academy officials defend the process as necessary in order to create a fair environment within which to judge all the songs submitted for consideration. But the nature of the screenings, the numerical grading system and the requirements for voting are driving some songwriters crazy.

Here’s how it works: Members of the music branch are invited to a screening at the Academy theater where all the eligible songs (this year, 49) are played in three- to four-minute clips, just as they were featured in the films (even if only over boring end-title crawls).

Those who can’t attend but want to vote are sent a DVD of the same clips. Three different versions go out, with the songs in different order. One catch: You can’t participate if one of your songs is entered.

“There are two categories,” explains branch governor Bruce Broughton. “You vote for how well the song works in the picture; you also vote on the effectiveness of the song, period — whether it’s a good song.” The scale is from 6 to 10, 10 being best. (A 0-10 scale was ruled out as a means of curbing attempts to sabotage songs with zero ratings.)

In order to be nominated, an aggregate score of 8.25 must be reached. Since the new procedure began, no song without a lively visual background has been nominated. In the last two years, for example, three songs each from “Dreamgirls” and “Enchanted” received nominations, and all were performed on camera.

For 2007, the omissions were as conspicuous as ever, with talents like Eddie Vedder and the lesser-known Sondre Lerche — who wrote entire song cycles for “Into the Wild” and “Dan in Real Life,” respectively — absent from the competition.

This year, Springsteen’s “Wrestler” song played under the film’s end titles. Ballots don’t indicate who the writer or artist is, so it’s possible that voters didn’t know it was a Springsteen song or were simply unimpressed.

“A song that plays over the end credits of a movie, that summarizes the entire experience of the film — such as the song in ‘The Wrestler’ — doesn’t mean anything out of context,” says an Emmy-winning songwriter.

No other branch operates this way, notes another observer. “They don’t send out three minutes of Heath Ledger’s performance, or one shot of a costume, and say, ‘What do you think?'” And because members cannot vote on songs unless they agree to follow what he views as overly restrictive rules, the total voting sample is reduced.

“Personally, I think it’s fair,” says Broughton, who points out that all branch members are urged to see the entire films in order to judge the songs in context. And he adds that the at-home viewing of the DVD, available to anyone in the branch who wants to participate, has led to “a lot more people voting than in previous years.” (Actual numbers are unavailable, even to governors.)

Members canvassed generally agree that no one cares that the Golden Globes awarded Springsteen or nominated Beyonce for a “Cadillac Records” song or Miley Cyrus for “Bolt.” (But, as another member notes, their presence at the Oscar ceremony might have boosted the telecast’s annually declining ratings.)

The Springsteen song, Jon Brion’s “Little Person” from “Synecdoche, New York” and Jamie Cullum’s rendition of “Gran Torino” were cited by several members as tunes that might have filled slots four and five but apparently didn’t reach the necessary 8.25 score.

“By making all of these hoops to jump through, they are telling music-branch members they can’t be trusted,” says another Oscar-nominated songwriter. “They treat the entire branch like they’re imbeciles by making all these check-and-balance style rules.”

Another multiple-Oscar nominee says: “They’re taking the whole song thing much too seriously, making these intense restrictions. It’s backfiring and alienating people from the process. Just let people pick the top five.”

Choosing five without qualitative judgment, insists one Acad exec, “is antithetical to the whole spirit of the Oscars. Our point is, let’s filter for the very best.”

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