Behind the Never-Ending Debate Over Oscar Campaigning

In an interview, an Oscar-nominated director was asked how the Academy Awards could be improved. He suggested the trophies be given out every three months, stating: “The disadvantage of the present formula is that the awards invariably go to pictures that were released between September and December 31.” He wasn’t the first person to complain about the year-end glut, and he certainly won’t be the last. The speaker was Alfred Hitchcock in 1972 (quoted in the revised edition of the book  “Hitchcock/Truffaut”).

Film fans and journalists enjoy an annual ritual of lamenting Oscar. This year’s diversity protests are significant because they touch on industry-wide issues. But usually, the criticism of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is much more specific, dealing with the Oscar timetable, the campaigning, and even the media’s coverage of the Academy Awards.

“I’ve come to dread Academy Awards time each spring. The Oscars are always good for an annual smirk in the press. The choices are ‘moribund,’ the ceremony, ‘tacky.’ As a matter of fact, the smirkers have never understood either the Academy or its awards.” This was written by the great journalist-screenwriter John Gregory Dunne in his 1974 essay “Tinsel.”

Some of the Oscar criticism is more recent. In August, Edward Norton complained to IndieWire that Oscar campaigning was “a dog-and-pony show.” Norton proposed that the Academy could rescue the industry by banning campaigns. “They could say that any film putting out paid solicitation ads of any kind — all these for-your-consideration ads that cost millions and millions of dollars, which just solicit awards — they could say that any film using them is disqualified from the Academy Awards. It would end it overnight.”

Norton is a terrific actor and an admirable activist. But he apparently is unaware that Academy execs, in fact, did try to do this, more than a decade ago. They were told by attorneys that any such move would be illegal, a restraint of trade in the U.S. In addition, the FYC ads that appear in Variety and other publications are a small fraction of a campaign costs. Even if the Academy ended ads, strategists have multiple tricks up their sleeves, such as Q&As, parties and other bits of pricey hoopla.

The classic Oscar dismissal was written by Raymond Chandler in the March 1948 issue of the Atlantic.

He said of the awards: “Technically, they are voted, but actually they are not decided by the use of whatever artistic and critical wisdom Hollywood may happen to possess. They are ballyhooed, pushed, yelled, screamed and in every way propagandized into the consciousness of the voters so incessantly, in the weeks before the final balloting, that everything except the golden aura of the box office is forgotten.”

Some things don’t change. Until the Internet boom, few journalists wrote about the Academy. To much of the world, Oscars were decided by some anonymous Hollywood group, and the Academy’s activities for the 364 other days of the year were ignored. But there were always industry grumblings about AMPAS.

At one point, the Academy was blasted as a “closed shop” and young professionals complained that it was difficult to join; the Academy wanted to make it easier. The Academy president announced membership was under review and voting privileges could be revoked for some individuals “who have been professionally inactive in motion pictures for a number of years.” The president was Gregory Peck, as quoted in the April 10, 1970, issue of Variety.

Two months later, Variety reported that the affected members were fighting back, saying that voting rights were “arbitrarily taken away” from some and that this action represented “discrimination.”

In other words, history always repeats itself. The big difference is that the world is moving a lot faster these days, and the protests over Academy proposals took two minutes instead of two months.

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