With the frenzy of awards season upon us, isn’t it time for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to explain its policies on Oscar campaigning to the 1,500 new members it has invited into its realm over the past two years? The makeup of the Academy is fast changing, but its rule book, I would argue, has become an anachronism. Indeed, I think the care and feeding of the Oscar overall deserves a new look. And the awards season with its nightly screenings and Q&As is a good moment for a rethink, as Hollywood professionals find themselves distracted by lurid tales of sexual harassment rather than focusing on the good work being done.
I was reminded of this at 10:30 the other night when I attended a reception following the screening of a very good film (Molly’s Game) that was 30 minutes too long. I was desperately searching for a glass of wine or even water and was about to clutch a lone glass sitting on a counter when I encountered another hand — it belonged to a woman who was also looking desperate. She introduced herself as a new Academy member, told me she’d liked the movie a lot and was eager to ask questions of its director, Aaron Sorkin, standing nearby. Fortunately, a waiter now appeared, doling out two plastic glasses. “It’s crappy wine,” he advised ruefully. “But this is an Oscar party so the canapes, if they come, will also be crappy. Sorry about that.”
This incident was trivial, but, as a voting member of the Academy for four decades, it underscored for me a conundrum facing Oscar voters: Our official attitude, which I supported in years past, was that Oscar campaigning is improper, if not unsavory. A key reason traces back to Harvey Weinstein, who put the awards competition into overdrive – a vulgar overdrive. Where voters were once quietly encouraged to weigh the attributes of the various contenders, they were now being assaulted with media blasts, some containing nasty innuendos about other films. Stars and filmmakers, who once retained their stolid dignity during awards season, now faced the rigors of intense campaigning as though they were running for public office. The upshot: the Academy proceeded to impose an array of rigid rules putting the lid on promotional dinner parties and other circus-like events designed to enhance Oscar chances. Sure, a nomination could boost box office, but that’s no reason to turn the process into a media melee.
All that made sense to me, especially during my 18-year stint as a film executive (three studios) and producer (seven credits). When I later became editor in chief of Variety, I clearly benefited from the ever-mounting largesse of Oscar season, but still wrote critically about the stunts and snarky campaigning. Constraints clearly had to be imposed.
But Harvey Weinstein is no longer on the scene. And the indie film business urgently needs nourishment. We are thus left with the current conundrum: The awards season, which could provide the forum for a professional, convivial and even educational dialogue, has been turned into an austere and uncomfortable series of encounters. This is regrettable, because Oscar voters should be encouraged to attend screenings or see films in theaters, rather than depending on the ubiquitous screeners. But here’s what the rules come down to: Companies can screen their films for voters and introduce their stars and filmmakers at cocktail receptions, but the receptions must take place in locations, some dungeon-like, directly adjacent to the screenings – no quick trips to friendly restaurants. The hors’ d’oervres must be skimpy (the Academy’s rules committee supervises the menus). Velveeta on crackers is OK, forget lobster rolls. Cheap wines get an OK, a veto for champagne or martinis. Filmmakers can shake hands, but are instructed not to proselytize. Big brother is watching.
I realize all this may sound picky, but this is the Academy, for heaven’s sake. These are accomplished people. I don’t advocate that they be served the sumptuous dinners that are served up to the members of the Foreign Press Association – the constituency for the Golden Globes. The studios not only wine and dine the foreign press but fly them to exotic foreign locations to curry their favor. Is that tacky? It wins them Globes.
Clearly the Academy should continue to distance itself from that sort of hustle. On the other hand I enjoy observing the interplay between Academy members and filmmakers at this time of year. The dialogue is often smart and insightful. The new members in particular relish the opportunity to exchange ideas with new filmmakers like Greta Gerwig or to listen to the war stories of James Franco or learn how Jeremy Renner and Taylor Sheridan re-captured rights to their film, Wind River, from Weinstein. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes in the film industry today, and Oscar season opens up channels of communication.
All this can still be accomplished in cramped screenings and bleak wine-and-cheese receptions, but why not provide a more comfortable setting? Yes, good restaurants. Even dinner parties. In post-Harvey Hollywood, everyone deserves to wallow in a little comfort.