Oscar voters can reach beyond their home branch

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences will mail nominations ballots on Monday to 5,277 voting members, and for the first time approximately 200 members will have expanded voting rights.

Traditionally, voters nominate work in the branch to which they belong: Editors nominate editors, writers nominate writers, etc. And under AMPAS rules, a person cannot be a member of more than one branch. (All voting members nominate best film.)

But this year, some members will vote in areas beyond their “home branch” if they have been nominated in other categories. George Clooney, for example, is a member of the actors branch, but will receive ballots for the directing and writing categories as well, since he has chalked up bids in those areas for “Good Night, and Good Luck.”

AMPAS exec director Bruce Davis said the move evolved gradually. “It was something members had asked about over the years: ‘I was nominated in that category, but can’t vote.’ So we went to the rules committee and they approved the idea, and then we took it to the board (for approval),” he said. “Everybody liked the idea, there was no opposition anywhere. It’s nice to have your most accomplished members voting in categories in which they’ve shown their accomplishments.”The move was approved at a board meeting in the summer, though AMPAS did not announce the change.

Asked if it will affect the outcome in any categories, Davis said, “It seems unlikely,” pointing out that there are only a few additions to each voting category.

Though each branch creates its own nominees, membership at large votes on most categories in the final balloting. A few categories are decided by committee: documentary, foreign-language film, etc.

As it does every year, the Academy released its figures for each branch (see chart). This year’s tally of 5,277 is down from last year’s 5,810. In general, the numbers have remained fairly consistent over the years.

Also down is the number of eligible films. The ’09 tally of 274 eligible features, as unveiled last week by the Acad, is down a little from last year (281) and a drop from the peak of 311 in 2005.

To be eligible, a film must begin a seven-consecutive-days engagement in a Los Angeles commercial theater by midnight, Dec. 31. In addition, contenders must run longer than 40 minutes, be exhibited on 35mm or 70mm film, or in a qualifying digital format, and must not have been first publicly exhibited or distributed outside of a theatrical motion picture release. Hence, films that premiere via video-on-demand before their theatrical run are not eligible.

Nom ballots are due in the PricewaterhouseCoopers L.A. office Jan. 23. Noms for the 82nd annual Academy Awards will be announced Feb. 2, with final ballots going out Feb. 10 and due back March 2. Awards will be handed out March 7 at the Kodak Theater. The ceremony is later than usual this year due to scheduling around the winter Olympics.

The voting changes are part of the Academy’s ongoing rethinking of its procedures and rules. For example, every year, the board weighs changes in Oscar voting that had been recommended by various branches. Some of these are minor, some are major, such as this year’s decision by the music branch to consider the possibility of no best-song nominations if not enough tunes hit the required score.

This year marks a radical change as the org has expanded the picture race to 10 contenders.

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