Oscar takes a few steps forward

Digital innovations, younger hosts augur well for kudocast

Howard Hawks said a good movie consists of three good scenes and no annoying ones.

Applying that yardstick to awards season, this year has offered three good changes. And while no annoyances were introduced, a few questions remain unresolved.

First, the good news …

Populism: One of Oscar’s goals in expanding to 10 best-pic contenders was to get more crowdpleasers into the mix. Not everyone agrees with the Acad’s decision, but the lineup for the second year indicates that the goal was met. Five of this year’s 10 have passed $200 million at the worldwide box office, “True Grit” is nearly there, and a seventh (“The Fighter”) passed $100 million and is still going. That’s in contrast to recent years like 2005 (when “Crash” eventually won): When the nominations were announced, one of the docu contenders, “March of the Penguins,” at $114 million, had far outgrossed any of the five best-pic hopefuls.

Suspense: As the big event looms, the outcome is still in question. In some years, one film wins everything pre-Oscar (like “The Hurt Locker”). In other years, it’s all over the map. This year saw “The Social Network” sweep critics prizes, while “The King’s Speech” won the guilds. And the wild card is the Acad’s preferential voting process, introduced last year with the expanded best-pic category. In a system that’s dazzlingly complicated, it’s possible that a slew of No. 2 or No. 3 votes on the ballot could push some other film into the winner’s circle.

Digital innovations: While the mainstream media focuses on the direction of the telecast with hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway (and the producers’ attempts to court a new generation of viewers by signing “young and hip” presenters), these are not really the key changes this year. This season, seeds were planted that could prove significant. Fox made its film nominees available to voters via iTunes, a move that was soon followed by Sony and Focus Features. And companies are reacting to Nielsen’s report that 13.3% of viewers last year spent time on the Web while watching the Oscarcast. According to the Wall Street Journal, advertisers like J.C. Penney are tailoring online campaigns. Meanwhile, various sites are offering “enhanced” viewing, giving Oscar fans online augmentation of the show. But the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences wants to own that space, and has rebooted its Oscar.com website. Org is selling a $4.99 premium package (or 99¢ for an app) that allows multitaskers to access numerous cameras on the red carpet, backstage and elsewhere.

But there were a couple of downsides this season …

Omissions: Some deserving work didn’t get attention. (Christopher Nolan, you are a great director! Grrr!)

The format: For all the time, money and labor spent on awards, nobody’s yet solved the eternal problem: Is a televised kudocast meant to be a handout of awards, or is it a TV show? In other words, how do you present two dozen prizes, accompanied by two dozen litanies of thank-yous, and make it entertaining for the folks at home?

Misperceptions linger: People still think awards are a popularity contest (if they were, Tom Hanks would win every year) and that awards voters are swayed by $ucce$$ful films. For example, in a brief story about “True Grit” being No. 1 at the box office in January, someone at the New York Times wrote the inexplicable headline “?’True Grit’ sustains its Oscar push.” Most kudos voters never pay to see a film and generally aren’t impressed by box office: Witness “The Hurt Locker” winning over “Avatar” last year.

Many people also think awards are frivolous. Really? With income boosts for winning films, along with the money spent on travel, limos, florists, restaurants, etc., kudos are a mini-industry. Another myth centers on the conservative Academy membership. This year, the foreign-language branch nominated Greece’s “Dogtooth,” a perverse Bunuel-like comedy with graphic sex and violence. That nomination, following past wins for Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” and Three 6 Mafia’s “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” in the song category, make it hard to stick with the old-fogey theory.

Kudos controversy. One of this season’s “downsides” — last month’s series of embarrassments for the HFPA — was actually a big win. The Jan. 16 Golden Globe Awards were surrounded by lawsuits and countersuits, Natalie Portman’s distinctive giggle in her acceptance speech (“He totally wants to sleep with me!”) was lavishly mocked on YouTube and — drumroll, please — the event was hosted by Ricky Gervais. In truth, these were the best things that could have happened to the show. For years, the Globes were considered a fun-party event, but in the past few years, everyone has been on their best behavior. Now, nearly two months later, people are still talking about the event. When was the last time that happened with a kudocast?

So there you have it. This season, the film biz seems to have taken three baby steps forward, and the rest of the time was running in circles. Congrats to everyone who took part in the last mile of this mega-marathon. And next year, let’s aim for three more good changes and no annoyances.

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