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Tech talk puts Oscar on the clock

Timing is crucial as Academy considers electronic voting

Awards are like comedy: Timing is crucial. The Jan. 24 Oscar nominations demonstrate the role that timing played in this year’s nominations, and the Academy’s Jan. 25 announcement about electronic voting raises questions about the sea-change that would occur if the ceremony moves dates.

In recent years, “There Will Be Blood,” “The Reader,” “The Departed,” “No Country for Old Men” and “The Hurt Locker” were troubling films for troubling times, and Oscar loved them.

But voters on 2011 pics cursed the darkness: “J. Edgar” seems a likely best-pic contender a few years ago, but it was completely shut out this year. Other dark films, such as “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” “The Ides of March” and “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” might have scored more noms in another year.

After several years of the recession and global turmoil, 2011 voters seem to have hit the wall with ultra-serious fare. “Midnight in Paris” succeeded where comedies of the past few years failed: gaining a best-pic nomination. In the two years that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences expanded the best-pic category to 10 entries, voters recognized genres that didn’t usually make the cut, such as toons (“Up,” “Toy Story 3”) and sci-fi (“Avatar,” “District 9”). But out of 20 contenders for 2009 and ’10, there was not one comedy.

The noms for 2011 were paced by two valentines to filmmaking, “Hugo” (with 11 noms) and “The Artist” (with 10). Oscars are always about the film industry congratulating itself, but this year voters took that to a new level.

Movies dealing with serious issues — “Moneyball,” “War Horse,” “The Descendants,” “The Help” and “The Tree of Life,” which collectively earned 24 bids — leave the audience feeling good. They’re serious, but not somber.

Another note about timing: Five of the nine best-pic nominees opened in November or December. It’s become a self-fulfilling truism that year-end films get more awards attention, and the results this year offer assurance the trend will continue.

But that reality could be affected by the bigger question of the timing of the Oscar ceremony itself. The announcement about electronic voting set off a lot of speculation.

While a date change for one Hollywood event is not necessarily a big deal, Oscar is the alpha male in film awards, and any move would create a ripple effect touching other awards shows as well as film festivals, various aspects of the pic and TV businesses, and support industries.

In truth, the date change may never happen, but the level of concern is an indicator of Oscar’s importance. While some mock the Oscars as an example of Hollywood ego-stroking, the awards are at the center of a huge business. The L.A. County Economic Development Corp. estimated that the Oscars have a fiscal impact of $200 million in Southern California. (The numbers come from the org’s November 2007 report, the latest one available). Other estimates have ranged from $60 million to $600 million. That’s a wide spectrum, but any way you look at it, there’s a lot of money in play. And when you add in coin generated by other kudos rites, and the thousands of jobs related to those ceremonies, there are a lot of companies keeping an eye on the Oscar date.

AMPAS president Tom Sherak is a guiding light behind the org’s planned move to electronic voting. The announcement last week said it is targeting the move for 2013.

Electronic voting does not guarantee an earlier date, but it does enable such a shift, which currently would be unlikely. In the present system, the Academy must allow time for ballots to be mailed to voters in far-flung regions of the globe, a process that would be considerably shortened via computers.

Sherak and the Academy are being super-scrupulous: At a time when even FBI websites can be hacked, they want to make sure their voting system is secure. (Not to mention another dilemma: There are Acad voters who don’t even use email.)

Some within AMPAS are hoping that a shift would eliminate some of the other televised awards shows that they feel undercut the Academy Awards. However, when Oscar moved a month earlier, starting with the 2004 ABC telecast, other events also shifted dates. The Golden Globes used to be held after the Academy Awards, but when it began preceding the ceremony in 1973, it became a campaign stop, luring stars and increasing TV ratings. In December 2000, the British Academy of Film & TV Arts positioned itself as an Oscar steppingstone (Daily Variety, Dec. 27, 2000) by preceding, rather than following, the Hollywood event. It’s unlikely those kudocasts would be willing to easily give up those prime slots.

Also affected will be the scheduling at film festivals. Pics start building buzz at festivals — “The Artist,” “Midnight in Paris” and “The Tree of Life” at launched at Cannes, while “The Descendants” and “The Ides of March” bowed during the overlapping Telluride-Venice-Toronto weeks, and “Hugo” at the New York Film Fest. Other fests, such as Palm Springs, have become key stops on the campaign trail, and distribs with Oscar hopefuls will tap into the fests’ growing importance.

If the timing of Oscar season changes, filmmakers might not be able to keep up. Last year, the N.Y. Film Critics Circle had planned to announce its favorites on Nov. 28, to become the first critical kudos of the season. But the org decided to delay voting by 24 hours to accommodate a screening of the just-completed “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” However, “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” was delivered to Warner Bros. too late for the studio to pass it on to several voting groups.

There is also the question of release dates. Indies and specialty arms often schedule bows to capitalize on awards attention. But for major studios, the top priority is to find the maximum audience. The year-end holidays are a key playing period, so the combo of majors and indies meant that more than 36 films debuted this past December. And the logjam could get more intense if the sked changes, meaning fewer screens would be available.

Film companies will also have to rethink how to reach voters. If a studio wants to open its big awards-type film at Christmas, execs will have to decide about earlier screenings, or about showing the pic online or via DVD, to reach the maximum number of voters — and hope that pirates stay away.

The emphasis on year-end bows often means that many people throughout the U.S. and the world have not seen many of the Oscar contenders by late February. And it could get worse with an earlier telecast.

But the main questions are: What’s the rush? And will all of this ultimately benefit films?

Oscars are the film industry’s biggest night of the year, but it’s TV that plays a key role in all decisions for the Academy and many other film prizes.

TV ratings and license fees are major considerations for Oscar, SAG, Broadcast Film Critics and the Globes.

Some yearn for the 55.2 million U.S. viewers the Oscarcast delivered in 1998, when “Titanic” won. That’s compared with the 37.9 million viewers the telecast delivered when for “The King’s Speech” won in 2011.

In the years since “Titanic” mania, coverage of red-carpet events has become more pervasive, thanks to the Internet and fanzines, and there are even more kudocasts. Many feel these have played a role in the ratings drop, so they want to move Oscar earlier to reaffirm its primacy and hold the whole shebang before the public has gotten bored.

In theory, the primary goal of kudos ceremonies is to honor good work — and, as a side benefit, to promote moviegoing.

But ratings and big paydays are factors. Last week, the trial between Dick Clark Prods. and the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. got under way. At stake: The $20 million that NBC pays for Golden Globes rights.

And there is another consideration when talking of date changes. Since the 76th Academy Awards (honoring the films of 2003) moved a month earlier, to late February, there seems to have been a change in trends.

For the eight years of 1995-2002, the film with the most Oscar nominations went on to win the top prize 88% of the time. In the eight years since the shift, that drops to 50% of the time. Similarly, a Golden Globe best pic winner went on to Oscar victory 75% between 1995-2002. Since the shift, it’s been 25%.

Clearly, something is going on. Because tallies are kept secret, analysts can’t study the results and poll the voters as to why this is happening. But clearly there has been some effect. Better or worse? We’ll never know.

People within the film industry are split over the idea of an earlier Oscarcast. Some want the Academy Awards to boldly underline its position of importance. And some think a five-month campaign season is simply too long.

Others maintain that no matter how early Oscar moves, the campaigns would simply start earlier. And while awards season can be exhausting, what would happen to the DNA of the season if the Globes, guild awards and Oscars were all jammed within a three-week period?

In 2012, the Producers Guild Awards, the Oscar noms, the DGA and SAG Awards fell on Jan. 21, 24, 28 and 29, respectively. That’s just a sample of the kudos crush this year. And an abbreviated season would mean more squeezing, since other considerations are the Writers Guild, BAFTA, AFI, Golden Globes, Broadcast Film Critics, Indie Spirit Awards and multiple guild and critics ceremonies, not to mention Sundance, the Grammys, and football playoffs and the Super Bowl.

“Time is everything,” as the young protagonist is told in “Hugo.” “Everything!”

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