Eye on the Oscars: Music Preview

The music branch has finally come to its collective senses.

That, at least, is the conclusion of many observers to this year’s modification of the Oscar song rules, effectively reinstating the pre-2005 system of a definite five nominees and the scuttling of a confusing, even infuriating “point system” for grading song entries.

For the past seven years, the Academy music branch has reviewed song entries and scored them on a 6-to-10 point scale based on perceived quality of songwriting and effectiveness within the film; any song that didn’t score an average 8.25 didn’t make the cut.

The result was, in four of those years, fewer than the standard five song nominees; in 2011 there were only two, and that was an especially robust year marked by acclaimed songs for “The Help,” “Albert Nobbs” and “Gnomeo & Juliet.”

Bypassed in earlier years were notable tunes by Bruce Springsteen, Diane Warren, Eddie Vedder, Marvin Hamlisch, James Horner, plus Alan and Marilyn Bergman. These omissions, admits one veteran music-branch member, “were, frankly, embarrassing.”

It all came to a head earlier this year when, at a music-branch executive committee meeting, members agreed that “although trying to ensure that the best songs would be nominated, when push came to shove, we weren’t helping the cause,” according to one member present.

The committee voted to return to the old system, a decision later ratified by the Academy board of governors.

Says music-branch executive committee chairman Charles Fox: “We tried the numerical system and we found that it’s very difficult to put an exact point score on a song. We all know what a good song is, and we know how it works in a film.”

Under the restored “preferential voting system,” members will vote for five songs in order of preference, and “the songs that come out on top will be the nominees,” says Fox.

“It’s wonderful to hear that the music branch is returning to the good old-fashioned style of voting, which shows they once again trust that its esteemed members will use the experience and talent that got them into the music branch in the first place,” says five-time Oscar-nominated Marc Shaiman (“Sleepless in Seattle”).

“And personally,” he adds, “I am relieved I will no longer have to spend half the year being tutored” in the now-defunct grading system.

Robert Kraft, former president of Fox Music, says he’s “thrilled” about a solid five nominees and adds, “the old numerical grading system was clearly an obstacle to getting the most deserving songs into Oscar contention.”

“It went back to the way it should be,” says six-time song nominee Warren. “(The old system) made no sense. Not only was it a drag for me, last year a lot of worthy songs didn’t get nominated.”

Another controversial provision — that if you’ve submitted a song for consideration you can’t vote in the song category — has also been abolished. And all of the approximately 240 branch members will receive a DVD containing all eligible songs as they appear in film.

The other rule tweak is the branch’s acknowledgment that songwriting is often more of a team effort than other film disciplines. In the past, two or three songwriters were allowed; this year, in what the rules call a “very rare and extraordinary circumstance,” four songwriters may be eligible.

“Finally, a little bit of good sense and logic,” adds another high-ranking studio music exec. “The system is still not perfect, but so much better, for sure.”

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