Changes under way at Olivier Awards

Plans move ahead to alter judging system

Behind-the-scenes changes are now under way to the Olivier Awards’ judging system, Variety has learned, with the revisions prompting sources to worry that they threaten the credibility of the kudos just as the awards show prepares to return to greater visibility with the first national TV broadcast of the ceremony in a decade.

Though still officially under wraps, plans are afoot that, according to insiders, will sideline the awards’ small pool of famously impartial judges by adding the votes of members of the Society of London Theater, the org comprising some 170 theater owners, producers and general managers, in the final round of the complex voting system.

Society of London Theater CEO Julian Bird

Speaking exclusively to Variety, SOLT CEO Julian Bird confirmed that the first stage of the process will remain unchanged: Unlike the Tonys, which have a panel of 30 nominators that draws up the list of nominees for a voting membership of 700-800 producers, theater owners, thesps, creatives, past winners, legit journos and others, the Oliviers initial panel consists of just nine people overseeing the shortlist and the deciding on the winners.

Five are industry professionals — past judges have included casting directors, the Equity prexy and the head of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts — who serve alongside four members of the public, selected via written submission and interview.

Having seen the 100 or so shows under consideration (well over twice the number seen by Tony voters), the nine judges put together a roster of potential candidates for each category. That roster is then circulated to the 170 or so SOLT members, who can, and regularly do, add their own candidates before voting on all the possibilities. The highest number of votes in each category form the shortlist.

In previous years, voting for the winners from the shortlist was the sole domain of the nine judges. Bird refused to go into detail — the finer points are still to be finalized by the SOLT board — but he conceded that this year, the protocol will change.

“We are the only awards that I know of where the membership of the organization is not involved in the final selection of the winners,” he said. “We are out of kilter with the Tonys, the BAFTAs, the Oscars. The plan is to have a blend, in both stages, between SOLT members and the panel.”

Some insiders feel that the change is motivated by a desire to rebalance the awards in favor of commercial shows after a long stretch that has seen London’s risk-taking not-for-profits — the National Theater, the Royal Court and the Donmar — dominate the winners’ list. With more SOLT members involved in large-scale commercial productions, those shows would be more likely to win more Oliviers.

The opinion of some insiders, however, is that the change would compromise the awards’ independence.

While movie awards voters can watch screeners in order to see all the nominees, there is no way to guarantee that SOLT members will have seen more than a small percentage of the 100-plus shows under consideration.

Furthermore, how will SOLT stop potential bias from producers and management favoring their own work? The opportunities for self-interested voting are plain, not least toward still-running shows whose commercial chances could be buoyed by Olivier wins.

The concerns arise just after the industry welcomed the news last month that Britain’s preeminent legit awards would be broadcast April 28 on ITV, the U.K.’s lead commercial broadcaster.

Created and administered by SOLT, the Oliviers have struggled to maintain a strong media profile ever since 2003, when the BBC opted to drop the annual ceremony from its schedule. That decision was only partially reversed in 2012, with a celebrity-studded Royal Opera House ceremony that was made available online and by BBC Radio 2

Ultimately, Bird’s belief that the SOLT board will ensure a credible system of checks and balances is a gamble — one that will play out when nominees are announced live March 26 on BBC Radio 2. The clock is ticking.

Contact David Benedict at benedictdavid@mac.com

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