The 2011 movie awards reflected the chaotic state of the motion picture business which was marked by uncertainty all year. Upheaval within the glacially slow-to-evolve Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences resulted in major changes. But an embarrassingly awkward stumble in selecting the producer and host of this next Oscar show put the brakes on innovation. So the powers-that-be sought comfort in tradition for the time being. With new leadership, new rules, and a stabilized Oscar show that promises a return to tradition rather than rocking the boat, the awards year is poised to close out 2011 with one of the most wide-open races in years. The showbiz community expects upheaval and controversy from within the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Golden Globes (more on that below), but not from the staid Movie Academy. Undoubtedly the biggest black eye for the Academy in 2011 was set in motion on August 4th when it was announced that director Brett Ratner would be joining Don Mischer as producer of the 84th Annual Academy Awards. Ratner was considered an off-the-wall choice, clearly aimed at shaking up the telecast in hopes of appealing to more popular tastes. Then Ratner announced his Tower Heist star Eddie Murphy would be the host despite all that actor’s own controversies at past Oscar shows. Just two months later Ratner resigned under pressure after making a gay slur during a Q&A for Tower Heist plus some sexually graphic remarks on Howard Stern’s radio show (reported first by Deadline). Murphy followed Ratner out the door the next day. To resolve the chaos that November 9th, mega-producer Brian Grazer saved the day by quickly stepping in to take the reins of the show with Mischer, and on November 10 the pair announced that 8-time host Billy Crystal had agreed to become Master of Ceremonies. Disaster averted. Even without that turmoil, early November was rough because of the sudden death of 14-time Oscar show producer Gil Cates.
But, frankly, 2011 started out poorly with the terribly reviewed 83rd Oscar show back on February 27th. At least everyone now agrees that hosts Anne Hathaway and James Franco flopped as hosts hired to draw a younger audience. Although the ratings were fairly flat compared to the previous year, it was interesting to see even the Academy acknowledge the pair bombed once the critics spoke. For instance, at the Governors Ball immediately after the show, I spoke with several Acad honchos who seemed delighted with their view as part of the audience, with one very prominent Board member even telling me it was “the best show in years”. But it became hard to find defenders of the hosts or producer Bruce Cohen soon afterwards. Even Franco and longtime Oscar show writer Bruce Vilanch publicly sparred about it a month later.
The competition for Oscar itself started off as a lopsided affair with Sony’s The Social Network rolling over every movie in sight in the major metropolitan critics awards. Then the Critics Choice Movie Awards and the Golden Globes followed. But once Industry members beginning with the Producers Guild Awards had their say on January 22nd, Harvey Weinstein began to pull off a shocker. Soon The King’s Speech was rolling over the David Fincher-directed Facebook film. Producer Scott Rudin and Sony executives were glum-faced as they made a hasty retreat from the Bevery Hilton ballroom after the PGA Awards. In the lobby afterward, King’s Speech director Tom Hooper was almost giddy at the surpise win. That was just for starters as a slew of Industry awards followed including DGA, WGA, SAG, and BAFTA. By the time Oscar night came round, there wasn’t much suspense. Everyone knew the King would rule and the once and future King of the modern Oscar campaign — Harvey, of course — was back with his first Best Picture win for The Weinstein Company.
It wasn’t a complete sweep. Natalie Portman grabbed Best Actress for Black Swan while The Fighter took Supporting Actor for Christian Bale and Actress for Melissa Leo (who memorably dropped the F-bomb during her acceptance). The Social Network had to settle for three Oscars, the highest profile being Best Screenplay Adaptation for Aaron Sorkin.
The hubbub overshadowed the Academy’s announcement (on the show itself) that it was extending its agreement with ABC to air the Oscars at least another six years. That brings it to 46 telecasts on that network since the Oscars’ TV life began in 1953. The health of this long-term association was good news as the Academy needed some stability in light of a major announcement on April 7th of a big leadership change in the Academy’s paid staff. After 30 years, Executive Director Bruce Davis was retiring at the end of June. To replace him the Board brought in a surprise choice, Film Independent head Dawn Hudson who would take on the new title of CEO in a “partnership” with new COO Ric Robertson, Davis’ longtime No. 2 and presumed heir. How this new duo would learn to work together was anybody’s guess, and it still is a work in progress by all accounts. But Hudson has clearly taken the reins moving quickly on a number of issues and projects. Too quickly? Like we said the Academy is very slow to change so there have been bumps along the way and not everyone is happy with the pace. But even before Hudson officially arrived at the end of June, some significant changes were taking place.
On May 19th the Academy sent a letter to the membership asking for email addresses and announcing a move to electronic voting, something almost every other voting orginization has tried to embrace. But with Academy such a transition is a lot more delicate and potentially dangerous. Certainly it would be a hacker’s dream to unveil the voting results. (I for one would just love to know actual vote totals). This move was thought to be a precursor to moving up the date of the Oscars, perhaps by as a much as a month to the end of January. The purpose would be to streamline the season and thwart other awards shows that try to steal Oscars’ thunder. An earlier move would be unthinkable, though, without electronic online voting capabilities. But this is seen as a problem for much of the Acad’s technologically challenged older population. Experiments are continuing and Academy President Tom Sherak tells me the institution hopes to have a full-blown tryout perhaps with the Board of Governors election this spring. As I revealed previously, even though the Academy has taken some baby steps toward moving the Oscar show sooner, there still are a lot of other complications — chiefly involving the date of the Super Bowl and ABC’s programming schedule. So the earliest the Oscars could take place in 2013 or 2014 is actually mid-February.
Whether the Academy wants to move just a week earlier is a big question. It’s hard enough now for Academy members to see all the films in time to vote. An earlier date in my opinion would throw everything into disarray. All the other awards would be forced to move earlier as well. Not a good idea. The Academy saw what happened when the New York Film Critics foolishly moved their voting date earlier by two weeks. It hindered seeing late 2011 releases and sent them smack into a PR iceberg with Sony, Warner Bros, and Scott Rudin. Hopefully, as the situation continues to evolve in 2012, the Academy will realize it is the only movie awards show that matters and all the others are just pretenders to the throne. The powers-that-be should focus more on making the actual show good, not first.
As for the awards themselves, the Academy in mid-June addressed the controversy within their ranks over its two-year-old switch from five Best Picture nominees to 10. The new rule this season is designed to build more suspense into the nominations announcement. There now can be as few as five nominees or as many as 10, thanks to a tweaked voting system that places greater emphasis on a member’s first choice for Best Picture.
Another big change was in the way Oscar campaigns are waged. That happened in September when the Academy announced new campaign rules that loosened pre-nomination regs and tightened them post-nomination. Previously Academy members were not even allowed to attend Q&As following screenings. The new rules abolished that, and now before nominations studios and campaigners can invite members to receptions and serve food. After nominations are revealed, the nominees can still do up to two Q&As for a film following a screening, but no food can be served and they can’t attend most receptions. This change has seen an uptick in Academy turnout for movies on the big screen so far this season, which was the goal. The Academy is trying to make things fun for their members without turning the awards process into a circus.
Under the new rules, Deadline’s own “The Contenders” event, held the weekend of December 10-11, attracted large numbers of Academy voters and select Hollywood Guilds members to presentations and Q&A sessions with filmmakers and studio moguls. These sessions elaborated on the moviemaking process and encouraged Academy and Guild voters to see the movies as they were meant to be seen — on a theater screen.
Among Academy personnel, the shakeups continued. Since Hudson arrived, a new postion of Chief Marketing Officer was created for veteran film exec Christina Kounelias. (Marketing exec Janet Weiss was shown the door.) Other staff changes in Hudson’s first six months have followed including the resignation of communications chief and 19-year Academy veteran Leslie Unger. The Academy has yet to announce a replacement.
On the elected side, Tom Sherak was voted in for his 3rd and final term as Academy President. At the same meeting the Board selected Oprah Winfrey, makeup artist Dick Smith, and actor James Earl Jones to receive Honorary Governors Awards which were presented for the third year in front of an enthusiastic audience in an untelevised black-tie ceremony at the Hollywood and Highland Grand Ballroom on November 12th.
Another big announcement took place a little more than a month before the Governors Awards. On October 4th the Academy and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art formed an alliance to bring the long gestating Academy movie museum to the historic May Co building also known as LACMA West. This multi-year project is the first concrete step in reviving plans for the much-desired museum since funding stalled after the 2008 collapse of the economy. LACMA’s CEO Michael Govan joined Sherak in announcing the historic alliance, and for film nerds like me it was a great day for the preservation of classic Hollywood. As for the land in Hollywood that the Academy owns and where it was originally intended to build the musuem, it will be turned into an open air theatre which shows classic movies from the Academy’s vast film archive throughout the summer months — another good idea. Projects like these truly help the Academy live up to the hopes and dreams of its founders to secure a lasting legacy for future generations of film fans who might not not care who wins Best Sound Editing.
As for this year’s Academy Awards, the French-produced black-and-white silent movie The Artist first charmed audiences back in May at the Cannes Film Festival and won Best Actor for Jean Dujardin). In December it suddenly racked up lots of critics prizes including the New York Film Critics Ciricle’s Best Picture award and a boatload of Golden Globe, Critics Choice Movie Award, Indie Spirit and SAG nods. It turns out the Cannes Fest unofficially started the Oscar race with some other official competition entries and award winners like The Tree of Life (Palme d’Or) and Drive (best director for Nicolas Winding Refn). Cannes opener Midnight In Paris, though out of competition there, was jubilantly received and went on to collect numerous nominations from Critics Choice Movie Awards, SAG, and the Golden Globes. Of course the really big news out of Cannes was Melancholia director Lars von Trier’s press conference where he kept sticking his foot in his mouth with remarks where he said he “sympathized” with Hitler a “little bit” and joked that he was “a Nazi.” Those and other remarks forced the festival to declare him “persona non grata,” banning him from the fest and its award ceremonies. But Melancholia still managed to land in the winner’s circle with Best Actress Kirsten Dunst who has since then failed to gain much traction in other awards contests.
Other films looking like major contenders in this intriguing year are National Board of Review Best Picture winner Hugo as well as The Descendants, Moneyball, War Horse and The Help. Question marks include the late-breaking Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close or perhaps May’s hit comedy Bridesmaids which has been gaining surprising traction. Acting categories are providing some of the strongest lineups in years, particularly a Best Actress race that includes Meryl Streep, Michelle Williams, Viola Davis, Glenn Close, and Charlize Theron for starters, plus a Best Actor lineup that could feature George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Leonardo DiCaprio among others. But wouldn’t it be ironic if a little black-and-white silent film became the first of that genre to win the Best Picture Oscar since the Academy’s initial 1927-1928 Best Pic winner Wings did it over eight decades ago?
Oscars aside, the Golden Globes became the talk of the town — well, not the actual awards themselves but their host Ricky Gervais who caused an uproar in his second year as host. No one in the room, particularly the Hollywood Foreign Press Association itself, was safe from his barbed insults. I for one loved his performance because it felt so refreshingly guerrilla. Afterward HFPA president Phillip Berk was forced to distance his group from the host, strongly indicating Gervais would never be invited back. But after the June election of a new president, Dr. Aida Takla O’Reilly and pressure from NBC during private talks, the comedian was invited back to host the Globes for a third straight year.
Of course with a couple of high profile lawsuits, the HFPA had bigger battles, most notably its legal tussle with Dick Clark Productions over the right to negotiate with NBC and produce future Globe shows. That feud will have its day in court soon and required a temporary truce between the HFPA and DCP in order to proceed with the 2012 show set for January 15th. I can say with all honesty that after 2011 nothing surprises me on the movie awards beat anymore.