The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is jumping into the screener business. Big time. DVDs for Animated, Live Action and Documentary Shorts as well as Feature Documentary and for the first time, Foreign Language Film nominees are officially on their way to all 6,028 eligible voting members, according to an email sent to the membership Thursday afternoon from President Cheryl Boone Isaacs. So the Academy will soon have another 25 nominated films of various lengths to check out before casting their ballots. Voting opens next Friday and continues through February 25th.
Although most Oscar voters are inundated with DVD screeners of movies during awards season, the Academy itself has always turned its back on the process refusing to provide studios and distributors with addresses of their members. Those companies have to get that information on their own and consultants with the goods make a lot of money. It’s certainly true that the Academy doesn’t prohibit the practice, which has obviously been in place for years, but they have never officially encouraged it, correctly preferring to urge members to try and see the films on the big screen if at all possible. The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, on the other hand, actually facilitates mailing of Emmy screeners for networks and studios by providing a complete list of TV Academy members to a mailing house which then sends them out. But that’s TV and it is designed to be seen on the small screen so it doesn’t really matter.
But now when it comes to these five special categories the Academy has joined the fray. “I’m happy to say for the first time, all members will have the opportunity to vote in all 24 categories for the Oscars. It’s a wonderful new benefit of being an Academy member,” wrote Boone Isaacs. “In order to protect the integrity of the Oscars we ask you to vote only in categories in which you’ve seen all the nominated films and are knowlefgeable about the craft. Your ballot will be counted no matter how many or how few categories you vote in…We’re thrilled to be able to provide you this increased access to our nominated films. Enjoy!”
Previously the only way members could vote in the Animated, Live Action and Docu Shorts categories was to attend special screenings and cast a ballot on the spot. You also had to prove you had seen Documentary Feature nominees and even sign an affidavit saying where you saw the Foreign Language contenders. Watching the foreign lineup on a screener until this year was verboten. Although the Academy doesn’t release numbers, it is thought the pool of voters for Foreign Film could have been as low as 500 in some years. Rule changes in the past couple of years has meant the entire Academy membership has begun to receive screeners in these categories, and now with the official addition of the five foreign language nominees, all 24 categories are on an even playing ground and everyone gets the opportunity to vote.
It’s a bit controversial with the foreign films as that has always been an area where it is thought members should be invested in the process. There is no special branch for foreign films and in fact, the nominees are chosen by special committees. The final five were selected by a high profile committee of 30 members (20 in L.A. and 10 in New York) who whittled down the list from nine finalists. That committee this year, including the likes of Tommy Lee Jones and Simpsons creator Matt Groening, watched them all on the big screen which can make a real difference for a film like Italy’s The Great Beauty whose sumptuous visual style could be diminished seeing it on a smaller TV screen. Opening the process up to everyone, and screeners, could favor movies that actually play better on television sets. Denmark’s nominated entry The Hunt for example is a more intimate story and might play as well on screeners. This new development also could favor higher profile foreign movies with name recognition. This is uncharted territory for the Academy, at least in the modern era, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out.
Hopefully members will heed Boone Isaacs’ words and vote only in categories “in which you’ve seen all the nominated films and are knowledgeable about the craft”. Of course that has never stopped some members from voting for say Best Sound Mixing, and thinking that means whatever is loudest. Overall though I have found Academy members to be pretty diligent about their right to vote. Having across the board participation by everyone in all categories for the first time ever will hopefully be only a good thing. It’s certainly further proof that the Academy is trying to be a more open organization moving in step with the times.