Voting guidelines in constant rewrite

If only more members of the Academy could act like the directors.

The helmers branch has maintained the same Oscar rules for decades, remaining steadfast as other groups endlessly tweak their requirements for little gold men. Compared with the baroque requirements in the original-song, foreign-language and feature-documentary categories, the director rules are positively laconic.

Just three single declarative statements,” says Bruce Davis, longtime executive director of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences.

So why can’t other branches follow the directors’ lead? To borrow a line from one of this year’s hopefuls, “It’s complicated.” Running an international arts competition is not as easy as outsiders — and even some insiders — might think, Academy leaders say.

You’re always trying to figure out what you could do a little better,” Davis says.

He’s used to complaints about the award process but has limited patience for those who would suggest the Academy throw out the rules and start from scratch in certain categories.

What good would that do?” he says, exasperation sharpening his otherwise jovial tone. “You still have to start making new rules.”

This year, even the picture selection process got more complicated: The Academy wanted to broaden the pool — and interest in the televised ceremony — while still ensuring the most esteemed movie wins the statuette, so it is asking voters to nominate up to 10 pictures, ranked by preference.

This is a real change for us,” Davis says. “We’re fascinated to see how it all turns out. Is it going to work as people intended?”

The original song category has been the most tinkered with over the decades, according to Davis, who says a year doesn’t go by without the music branch suggesting a modification.

We try to make them as sleek and efficient as possible,” says music chair Bruce Broughton, though he admits they don’t always succeed.

To qualify for best song, for example, the tune must not be composed in part or full before the filmmaking process, or be performed before the film’s release. This means a song from “Up in the Air,” which was partially composed before the movie was made, is not eligible.

Candidates are then judged by how well they fit into the movie as well as artistic achievement, receiving rankings that start at six and go to 10; only those songs receiving an average score of 8.25 are eligible. (If no song receives an average score of 8.25 or more, there are no nominees.) Members with songs in contention can’t vote.

Broughton says that the ranking starts at six to avoid a disgruntled voter lowballing the competition; contenders are barred for similar reasons.

It’s a difficult system,” says Broughton, who attributes the constant tweaking to changes in technology and the way songs are used in movies. “I don’t know that we don’t want to look at it again.”

Academy leaders tend to have perfectly rational explanations for stipulations that seem fussy to outsiders. For example, foreign-language contenders must be viewed in theaters in order to be nominated for the shortlist, unlike those produced for American auds. The reason? To be fair to smaller companies who could not afford to pay for DVDs, chair Mark Johnson explains.

Why not consider more films from each country? Logistics, he says. The Acad only takes one submission from a recognized organization in each country because otherwise it would drown in submissions; hundreds of movies are made in India alone. As it is, the branch barely has time to organize screenings for all 65 hopefuls.

Believe me, I understand all the criticisms,” Johnson says. “It’s a flawed system and it gets better and better, but it’s still flawed.”

The point, he says, is not to reward only the most accessible films that might be distributed Stateside anyway, but to also to consider artistic achievement of films, regardless of the country or subject matter.

The branch recently modified its shortlist process to try to ensure more of those films make the cut. Concerned that the theatrical viewing requirement was too time consuming — and therefore potentially skewed the shortlist to movies favored by older (and likely more conservative) members — the branch reserved three slots for artistically worthy contenders omitted by the process. The executive committee determines these after the shortlist votes are tallied.

I think we’ve made some very good adjustments the past few years,” says Johnson, who cites the omission of 2007’s “4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days” as particularly painful. “We’re in better shape.”

The feature doc category has gotten its share of criticism over the years, but exec chair Rob Epstein believes that lately, most of this stems from the shortlist selections themselves rather than the eligibility rules.

The branch has several requirements designed to discourage projects intended for other mediums: Unlike other branches, it requires nominees be released in theaters for at least one week in Los Angeles and New York.

It helps to legitimize the run,” says Epstein.

The docu branch also has detailed rules about when potential candidates can air on TV.

People within the documentary community understand the way it works,” he says.

Individual branches have large latitude over the Oscar nom process in their respective categories: Branches suggest modifications, which then get vetted by a rules committee before the board of governors votes on them. According to Davis, the board approves most modifications.

Branch leaders say they debate changes long and hard before they push for them — and drop them if they don’t work.

Says Broughton: “The thing I’ve had to tell people is we don’t do any of this lightly.”

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