Monday, May 1, 2017

Oscar Rule Changes and Politics

The most recent round of rule changes to the Academy Awards were announced a few days ago.  Most were minor, allowing a team of two people can be considered a single producer for Best Picture, and allowing a team of three or more “equally contributing” composers to be up for Best Original Score.  However, two changes in particular stood out:

“In the documentary categories, multi-part or limited series are not eligible for awards consideration."

"For the first time, nominations voting in the Animated Feature Film category will be opened up to the entire eligible voting membership.  Invitations to join the nominating committee will be sent to all active Academy members, rather than a select craft-based group."

As many commentators have rightly pointed out, these two rule changes are reactions to specific results from the most recent round of Academy Awards.  Specifically, Ezra Edelman's took home the Oscar for his seven hour, five part documentary, "O.J.: Made in America," which was originally made for ESPN's "30 for 30" series, but premiered first theatrically.   

The Academy has always been very keen to maintain a dividing line between film and television content, and there's been a rule that films have to premiere in theaters first for Oscar eligibility since an animated television special won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film for 1972 when it was subsequently theatrically released.  It's a fairly arbitrary distinction, and one that filmmakers have been getting around for ages with limited theatrical runs.  

The new rule could also be pretty easily circumvented by "O.J." being edited to remove the serialization.  "O.J." may be unusually long for a feature, but it's not as long as Claude Lanzmann's landmark Holocaust documentary "Shoah," which runs over ten hours and contains nothing resembling a chapter break.  This move should discourage longer documentaries from being made and submitted.  However, it may discourage projects that originated in the television realm from being repackaged as potential feature contenders.  And that's a shame, since television can offer sources of funding and talent that the features world doesn't these days.  The line between the two has just gotten blurrier lately.

Now on to the Animated Feature Film category.  Initially, the change doesn't seem so major.  Opening up the nominating committee to the wider Academy membership instead of only animation industry professions wouldn't change much, would it?  Well, the worry is that by having fewer Academy members on the nominating committee who specialize in animation would mean that the nominations would end up favoring the big American studios over the smaller independent and foreign titles like "The Red Turtle" and "My Life as a Zucchini."  The perception currently is that animation industry insiders have a bias toward traditional and stop-motion animation over the CG animation more commonly used by the bigger, more commercial studios. 

This worries me, because the Animated Feature Film nominations have been so dependable in recent years at really sussing out these smaller, deserving films.  The wider Academy membership that actually votes on the winners, on the other hand, has consistently picked the highest profile, most popular films - usually something from Disney or PIXAR.  While the category has made significant strides toward being taken more seriously, there are still members who continue to display a pretty appalling attitude toward animated films.

Then again, the rule change should be considered in the context of all the rules that aren't changing.  A spot on the nominating committee is voluntary, so only those members who want to be there will be.  And they'll still have to watch two-thirds of all the eligible films, including all of those foreign and indie contenders.  The rule change may end up not making much of a difference in the end.  However, since it
was the major studios that pushed for these changes, clearly somebody is hoping that they will.

Some of the Oscar races have been notably dysfunctional, like the Documentary and Best Song categories, so I understand the year round of rule tweaking to some degree.  However, in many cases, like the two above, they just feel petty.  So what if "Finding Dory" was edged out of the Animated Feature race by tiny European films?  So what if a seven-hour feature won Documentary?  The old rules didn't strike me as unfair.  

Don't like the results?  Make better films.     


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