The year of radical awards thinking

Changes in Acad rules may shift campaigns ... or not

Variety’s annual Awards Season Launch starts today, marking the official start of kudos season (kinda/sorta/not really — people have been prepping campaigns for more than a year, but we just figured today was as good a time as any to acknowledge that it really has begun).

To paraphrase a Passover question: Why is this awards season different from all other award seasons?

The optimist in me says this could be — should be — a year of radical rethinking. Over the past few years, there have been many key changes on the kudos scene, and the head of steam just might keep building.

The pessimist says it won’t be easy to change the DNA.

Reasons for hope: Oscar has twice in the past three years broken its 66-year tradition of naming only five best picture nominees. Plus, the Governors Awards were spun off, the Oscarcast accelerated by a month, and it will be moved even earlier. Plans are afoot for electronic voting. Streaming of films is becoming a factor as companies are eyeing alternatives to screeners.

Could this be the year that awards voters really think outside the box, retaining their “prestige” criteria but reigniting the “enjoyment” factor that’s been dormant too long?

And could this be the year that AMPAS board members and ABC execs finally consider major changes to the show? The current format was spectacular when it debuted on TV in 1953. But, uh, times have changed.

More will be said on these topics in the months ahead. The many, many months ahead.

And, yes, I’ve only been talking about the Oscars, while there are other awards events. Many, many, many other awards events. But Oscar is the Alpha male in cuckoo kudosland, so if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences makes changes, everyone else will too.

However, some things stay the same: the curiosity about certain films, the hopes, the excitement … all of which evolve into glassy-eyed numbness and verge-of-tears, hoping-it-will-end-soon exhaustion.

Reading the tea leaves

Every year, strategists try to come up with a formula for success. But with secret ballots, experts can only make guesses, figuring that the previous year’s wins are the Rosetta stone that unlocks all the secrets of Academy voters’ tastes.

Last year, “The Social Network” was winning everything until “King’s Speech” won the SAG Awards and continued its unbroken streak to the Oscar win. As a result, many awards hopefuls this year will work on the supposition that SAG is the key and that any film with Kleenex-y uplift has a huge advantage. But not so fast.

Reminder No. 1: Critics are not members of the Academy and vice versa. As much as pundits like to proclaim bellwethers, this is a very inexact art.

Reminder No. 2: Tastes change from year to year. “LOTR: Return of the King” and “Slumdog Millionaire” won top prizes in the last decade without a single Oscar acting nomination. “Gladiator,” “The Departed,” “No Country for Old Men” and “The Hurt Locker” were not exactly heartwarmers. The acting in all of these was superb but none was an “actors’ movie.”

“The King’s Speech” won because it was terrific. And it was terrific cuz it wasn’t trying to imitate any other movie and that’s what voters respond to.

Rules of engagement

There is another annual kudos tradition: Every season, the good ol’ Academy tries to get tough on campaigning. (The topic is addressed in more depth by Variety’s new and socko awards editor Christy Grosz.)

The Academy is trying to simultaneously deal with reality and perception. Do we really think people voted for “King’s Speech” because they got a free dinner at Chateau Marmont? AMPAS honchos know that people vote for their favorites, but they live in fear that bloggers and consumer-press pundits might say Oscars can be “bought.”

Keep things in perspective

Another annual tradition: The whole process of awards season will be overanalyzed and mocked as if it’s one more example of Hollywood egos run amok. Fundamentally, it’s about creativity. But it’s also become a time for marketing, networking and business, since some films and individuals stand to increase earnings significantly. Ego stroke? That’s a bonus.

And the season can be fun, if you’re in the right mood. The only question is how to sustain that mood …

So it’s official! Awards season has begun! Let the games begin! And let’s make sure that for the next few months, we all stop using so many exclamation points!

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