Oscar: Change is in the air

Rethink of dates, balloting will have ripple effects

With the winds of change blasting through every sector of the entertainment business, we tend to embrace those few change-resistant bastions of stability. Like the Oscars.

Well, maybe not the Oscars.

Committees of the Academy are considering a range of options that would significantly alter the way Oscar contenders are viewed and voted on and to also move up the date of the awards show itself for the 2012 edition. All this would entail a high degree of culture shock, not to mention risk — phenomena that are not welcomed by the famously conservative Academy board.

It all starts with the date: Set for Feb. 27, the Oscar show will again seem like an anticlimax rather than the Main Event — the awards orgy kicks off weeks earlier and the Golden Globes party is scheduled for Jan. 16.

If the Oscar ceremony is moved up a few weeks in 2012, that would trigger a variety of nervous-making options now being studied. Would voters resign themselves to seeing more movies online, further increasing the piracy paranoia of distributors? Balloting for nominations might also take place online, opening up all sorts of delicious possibilities for hackers and other electronic intruders.

On the surface, the Oscar business is in far better shape than other Hollywood constituencies. Ratings were up 14% last year and 41.3 million people tuned in, the highest viewership since 2005. The newly installed Governors Awards dinner proved a major success and the expensive and the anxiety-producing museum project was set aside for better times. And while the Academy’s various study committees are facing tough issues, the president, Tom Sherak, is a respected and diplomatic negotiator who understands how to move an organization forward despite its instinctive resistance to moving in any direction at all.

Even the films that confront Academy voters this year seem to prod an openness to change. No Academy member would have wanted to see last year’s “Avatar” on their computer, but one prospective Oscar favorite this year, “The Social Network,” is not only conducive to online viewing but is about reconstructing one’s life online.

“The Social Network” has received an astonishingly warm reception from the normally antisocial media — so much so that some of the self-annointed gurus of Oscar voting are already warning that a reaction may set in. Last year’s results served as a reminder that Academy voters, like those in political elections, seem to be subject to unpredictable changes in temperature — witness the 11th-hour embrace of “The Hurt Locker.”

This year’s late surge might embrace a film that’s in some ways the mirror opposite of “The Social Network”: the Pixar-Disney “Toy Story 3.” Traditionally resistant to Oscar campaigning, Disney seems set for a major push this year — one that might also support “Alice in Wonderland.”

An animated movie has never won for best picture, of course. And there is no Oscar category for 3D.

On the other hand, “The Social Network” could be regarded as the Web’s answer to “Marty” — how to get un-lonely on the Web. Or how to get lonelier.

As I said, those winds of change are downright disturbing.

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