Final voting begins today for the 91st Oscars, and it probably isn’t a moment too soon for beleaguered Movie Academy officials who seem to have a new controversy to deal with every day.
Ballots from the 7902 voting members will be due back next Tuesday at 5 PM PT in all 24 categories including Best Picture, which is the only one of them decided on a preferential basis where members must rank their favorites, from 1 being best to 8 being least favorite. In a tight race like this one, it has turned out to be that the system just ups the odds there could be a surprise when the final envelope is opened February 24 at the Dolby Theatre.
The only other voting body that employs the same system is the Producers Guild, which gave its top award this year to Green Book, the movie expected to serve up the most competition to pundits’ current favorite Roma, which recently took the all-important top DGA and BAFTA awards. Still to weigh in are the writers, with the WGA Awards coming Sunday.
Meanwhile, yesterday’s revelation by AMPAS president John Bailey that four categories would be presented during commercial breaks — Cinematography, Film Editing, Make-Up and Hairstyling, and Live Action Short — has stirred a wave of disappointment and criticism so far on Twitter from Cinematography nominees, Roma’s Alfonso Cuarón among others, as well as his past colleague and three-time winner in the category Emmanuel Lubezki. Last year’s directing and Best Picture winner Guillermo del Toro has also tweeted his distress at the choice of Cinematography and Film Editing as two of the four to go to commercial breaks. Many others are piling on with negative reactions as this plan continues to be controversial.
Bailey, in his letter to Academy members, did say viewers could watch the presentations live along with the Dolby Theatre audience since they will be streamed, something AMPAS is doing for the first time with the Oscar show. Otherwise they will be packaged for later presentation in the ABC show, with all nominees mentioned and the winners’ speech. Bailey has told me this is an effort to cut down the time it gets to the stage, not to cut the importance or downgrade these four awards (to be rotated annually with, most likely, other crafts and shorts categories). The Academy’s board also has pledged to bring the show in at three hours, hence the efforts to find ways to speed it up.
As far back as the Toronto Film Festival, Bailey has explained to me that an edited sample of what this would look like was shown, and he felt it was actually better. He also said he was thinking, even then, that as one of the governors of the Cinematographers Branch he would not be opposed to making his group one of the first to do this. His wife, Carol Littleton, is a governor in the Editors Branch, while First VP Lois Burwell is a governor of Makeup/Hairstyling, so it appears AMPAS leadership made a sincere effort to show the way forward on this.
After last week’s Oscar nominees luncheon where the plan wasn’t mentioned, I asked Bailey about it and he said it was being misinterpreted, and that he was going to send a letter to the membership to further clarify — which is what he did Monday. Some media reports, especially after new ABC president Karey Burke spoke at TCA and failed to explain it properly, gave the impression these categories wouldn’t be on the broadcast at all, which is completely wrong.
Still, it has caused consternation among many. Even the president of the ASC (American Society of Cinematographers), Kees van Oostrum, where Bailey presented the top ASC Award honor last Saturday (to Cold War), has weighed in with a letter to membership (which includes Bailey) that said in part, “We consider filmmaking to be a collaborative effort where the responsibilities of the director, cinematographer, editor and other crafts often intersect. This decision could be perceived as a separation and division of this creative process, thus minimizing our fundamental creative contributions.”
Cuarón, who is nominated in several other categories besides being the first director to have a shot at winning the cinematography prize, tweeted, “In the history of CINEMA, masterpieces have existed without sound, without color, without a story, without actors and without music. No one single film has ever existed without CINEMAtography and without editing.” Another contender, Never Look Away’s veteran lenser Caleb Deschanel, who received his sixth nomination this year (he has yet to win), has also expressed his disappointment with the decision, among a growing chorus.
Recently, the Academy had to backtrack on an initial plan to feature only two of the five nominated songs in performance slots — now all five will be performed after an uproar similar to what we are seeing today. You have to also wonder also what ABC’s sponsors, who each pay top dollar for valuable Oscar show spots, are thinking when they see the Academy giving viewers the option to watch live-streaming presentations of these awards rather than their ads.
When I was on the Television Academy board of governors, there was a big outcry when Academy toppers floated a plan to do something similar with select writing and directing Emmy Awards. As the governor for writers, we made such loud noise about this, in conjunction with the WGA, and got the decision reversed, and it has never been tried again (and the Emmys had to give out 26 awards on the primetime broadcast, not 24 like Oscar). The Emmy show producer, the great Don Mischer, reasoned at the time that if much of your industry audience sitting there is miserable, what is the point of trying something like that just to save time or focus on the hotter so-called TV-friendly categories.
Looks like there could be more to come on this one. Stay tuned.