Oscar’s move to online voting is off and running. The Academy confirms that a very impressive 83% of the membership had returned cards requesting their email address by the deadline date of June 30, but an Academy spokesperson assured me “it’s an ongoing process,” so if you were one of the stragglers, get that email to the membership department.
This is a first step in a very methodical and careful move to online voting for the Academy just as most other guilds and voting orgs have already done. And it is also a first step toward potentially moving the Oscar telecast up earlier in the season to the end of January or beginning of February. An expedited voting process would certainly help make that difficult prospect easier to pull off.
The Academy sent out the request to members in May, and considering the advanced age of some AMPAS voters, the response is encouraging. Common wisdom is that older voters might be the most resistant to change, but officials are happy with the way potential online voting is being embraced so far.
As I wrote recently, there was also some concern about A-listers not providing their direct emails, which is a problem because the Academy does not want to put an electronic ballot in the hands of Brad Pitt’s or Barbra Streisand’s assistants (even though it’s no secret that there are some assistants who have been known to help their boss by filling out the snail-mail ballots anyway). Academy president Tom Sherak tells me confidently that even that part of the process is now “going fairly well” too.
Sherak says the Academy hopes to have a firm that can conduct online voting in place by this month and it is actively involved now in the selection procedure for that. “We’re getting closer” is how Sherak puts it, but he emphasized to me that online voting for Oscars will not be ready for next year’s 84th Academy Awards. He says they are taking a very methodical approach and after securing a firm will begin testing by putting some kind of vote online while still using paper ballots (which will be the only ones that count in the test case) to see how the online method is initially received. Then they will probably test it again leading to its first official use, perhaps in the selection of governors for the board next May. “It will not be implemented until we’re sure it works, but all of this preparation is necessary so we can move it methodically into a proper voting cycle for the Oscars,” he says. Sherak adds they are aware that even though they want to move this process online, some members don’t have emails. The Academy will be providing an alternative for those concerned voters (likely the old standby paper ballot) just as the guilds do now.
“We will give all our members an opportunity to be part of something they have always been a part of,” Sherak says, meaning no one among the approximate 6,000 voting members are about to be disenfranchised by new technology creeping into the notoriously slow-to-change Academy.
Of course, many of those members already have experience voting online in their various guild contests since most Academy voters are also likely guild voters. The bigger problem here I think for the Academy is that unlike those contests, Oscar, being the highest-profile awards show of them all, may provide an irresisible target for hackers — and the Academy knows it. A key reason they are being careful about diving into online voting is the danger of having its air-tight voting system compromised. After all, WikiLeaks proves no one, even the most closed doors of the U.S. government, are immune to a cyber violation of its top secrets.
One Oscar voter who is also a consultant for some high-profile Academy campaigns says “it’s not a bad idea to go online, but what kid with a computer is not gonna want to play around and try to fuck up the Oscars. It’s also tough jolting an old institution which doesn’t embrace change that easily.”
AMPAS board member and Foreign Language Film committee head, producer Mark Johnson, told me, “Certainly the biggest problem could be the hackers. If they can get into the government and the banks, what about the Academy?”
One wag who also is a top distribution guy mused, “Just imagine an Oscar-hungry mogul calling one of their Chinese friends to hack into the system to check how voting is going on one of their movies.” He was being facetious of course, but the potential for hacking is there.
There’s no question the Oscars are unique, but in their 83-year history no one has ever managed to get the actual vote totals. The integrity of the balloting run by PricewaterhouseCoopers is beyond reproach. It would be a great temptation and triumph for some enterprising Internet thief to try and crack it and a major black eye for the Academy if that ever happened. Sherak told me the credibility of the Academy’s voting system is everything, so this is not an organization taking the natural move into online voting lightly.
Neither it appears is that other Academy that will be in the news this week, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which announces its Primetime Emmy nominations on Thursday. Deadline TV contributor Ray Richmond reports that, although part of their nominating process is done largely online with listings of various show and individual entries available on a protected website, the actual voting is still done using a No. 2 pencil and a computer ballot that must be mailed to the TV Academy’s accounting firm. In fact, according to the Acad’s veteran senior VP awards John Leverance, those accountants, Ernst and Young, are not urging them to make the move online too quickly.
“What they’ve told us is, the current state of Web security is insufficient to guarantee a hack-free system. We’ve seen how successful hackers have been just in the past few weeks in having their way with CBS, PBS, the CIA. It’s been a real horror story. The sorry state of online security has certainly been borne out by recent news events,” says Leverance, adding that any sort of meaningful move to online voting might be premature because “cold reality would seem to preclude taking that step.”
Leverance says ATAS would love to make the move just for convenience: “It would make for a much more efficient way of doing things. But when you have a razor-thin margin separating first-place vote-getters form second-place vote-getters, it’s difficult to justify risking the integrity of the awards with a system that doesn’t seem quite ready. Given the current state of the technology, we’re inclined to stick with our antiquated system for the time being,” even as the exec acknowledges that their practice of the last few years in putting the entry ballots on the website in tandem with mailing of the actual hand-written computer ballots has proven to be relatively glitch-free. So has the For Your Consideration service ATAS offers to members on the Web. “We’re able to post episodes of series for video-on-demand viewing, for example. That technology has greatly improved now, to the point where any technical issues generally are directly related to the bit-rate people have on their home computer. We’re providing a stream that works pretty well on any modern computer,” he says.
And with final balloting for Emmys, ATAS is different than AMPAS in the sense only a relative few Academy members vote in each category, including programs like Comedy or Drama series, since DVD screeners are sent to voters who volunteer to judge no more than two or three categories with ballots sent along with them to be returned by a certain date. The Emmys have an advantage of having more time between nominations and awards too — generally two months. The Oscars have only a month at best. Moving to online voting could give them some precious extra time, essential if the show is to move earlier in the season.
Unlike these two high-profile Academys, most other voting orgs are online including the guilds. Gregg Mitchell at the Writers Guild confirmed to me that they have been conducting online voting for their main movie awards — original and adapted screenplay — for several years with no problems (their TV categories are judged differently by smaller groups reading scripts). Of course, these are writers who are used to sitting in front of a computer all day. If a member requests a paper ballot, though, the guild provides one.
The Screen Actors Guild, which yesterday opened the submissions process for this year’s contest, operates the same way and has been allowing online voting for its nearly 100,000 members for the past six years.
It’s a challenge for a union with so many members, particularly thesps who may not be sophisticated in the ways of the Internet. SAG president Ken Howard told me, “voting with a computer can be difficult enough, but so can paper ballots. I know a lot of actors who don’t even have mailboxes.”
Controversy erupted last season when the guild decided to eliminate automatic mailing of a paper ballot unless a member responded to a postcard that said paper ballots would only be sent to those who requested them by a certain date. This caused confusion for members who were not paying close attention and to some publicists and awards consultants who became concerned that hundreds, maybe thousands, of voters might be disenfranchised because they didn’t know they had to respond in order to get a paper ballot. One consultant told me she thinks only about 65% of the guild’s members are even online at all and directed some of those “to Internet cafes” when it was clear they missed the deadline for obtaining the paper ballot. The guild doesn’t produce figures or reveal percentages of paper vs. online voting results, but SAG Awards publicist Rosalind Jarrett said they repeatedly informed members online, in press releases, in their monthly magazine and through mailings and are confident the word got out. The guild also put on extra staff whose sole job was to answer phone inquiries about the balloting rules and downloading contending movies online. The postcard that was sent included a pin number needed for online voting and a movie code needed for the downloads.
Jarrett admits the latter did involve “a learning curve” for the guild as many members who couldn’t figure out how to vote online really couldn’t dicipher how to get movies downloaded onto to their computers, and last year was the first time some studios decided to try it. To overcome this handicap, some distributors decided to also send physical DVD copies of their films (eventual winner The King’s Speech was one of those), although a mailing of that size can cost up to $300,000 vs. the cost-effective but frustrating downloading procedure. Jarrett says the downloading idea was the studios’, not SAGs, but the guild is happy to encourage and assist in any way their nominees can be seen — the big screen, DVD screeners, downloading or any other way they can.
Regarding online balloting, Jarrett says, “Every year it gets better and better with fewer questions. We encourage our members to vote online,” and she adds it is a very secure process, conducted by a company also involved in government elections, because to do it requires information only a member will know. One reason the guild originally embraced the online model was to save money on postage and what Jarrett describes as “three tons of paper” that were used for the long, involved ballots listing hundreds of contenders who entered the SAG contest. She also says that voting online gives voters more time to see films and TV shows as ballots don’t have to be due until the Friday before the Sunday telecast. And as for complaints, she adds that no major objections were voiced at a meeting after last year’s awards that the guild holds annually to solicit feedback from publicists and others with a horse in the race. SAG plans no major changes to its process this year and will continue finding ways to keep their membership informed, Jarrett says.
One very involved and prominent SAG member I talked to who is also a voting member of the Academy’s actor’s branch said she thinks the Academy’s move to online balloting is a good idea because it will be simpler. As for SAG with its longer ballot, she had a different opinion. “I called for a paper ballot last year because the whole thing looked confusing to me since you’re supposed to keep the postcard they send and use a pin number and I wasn’t sure how to do it. I think a lot of people thought they were gonna get a ballot and they didn’t understand the card, but I don’t know if you can blame anybody for that. Actors like to read for roles, they don’t like to read their mail.”
Hopefully for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the move into online voting will be a smooth one, but in the fast-changing wild wild West of the Internet, nothing is as easy as it looks on paper.