Oscar, heal thyself

The Academy Awards have grown sloppy and corrupt. Here are five proposals to fix them.

By Nikki Finke

Published March 23, 2002 11:33PM (EST)

He's a dirty boy, Oscar.

Now the time has come for his parent, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, to give him a head-to-toe delousing. It's the only thing to do as the foulest Academy Awards campaign in motion picture history ended this week.

The Enron scandal finally pushed Congress to get serious about campaign finance reform. So, too, should this year's swill of charge and countercharge, whisper and counter-whisper and counter-counter-whispers of "They're whispering!", plus gay-baiting, Jew-baiting, race-baiting, studio-baiting and media-baiting -- no matter if the issue was "A Beautiful Mind's" biographical accuracy or other controversies -- all force the motion picture academy to enact Oscar campaign reform.

At stake is the integrity of a process that purports to honor Hollywood but that now dishonors everyone and everything associated with it. Even on its own Web site, the motion picture academy bizarrely boasts about "Oscar Fever" as "an election campaign commencing that rivals, at least in Hollywood, the passions and sometimes the excesses of the quadrennial race for the nation's presidency."

Given the gazillions of dollars spent to make and market the world's most exportable cultural product, the film industry's governing body owes a guarantee of a fair and honest contest to the estimated 1 billion people in as many as 150 countries who will watch Sunday's 74th annual Oscar telecast.

But it's only entertainment: Who cares?

Evidence is abundant that the worldwide moviegoing public is not just aware of this Academy Award campaigning thanks to the Internet but consumed by it. A startled Canadian newspaper columnist covering this year's pre-Oscar scandals recently wrote about receiving a deluge of e-mails and letters from as far away as Taiwan.

Even in this country, there was a national howl over the 1950s corruption of the TV quiz shows. Yet as the motion picture academy allows its international awards spectacle to be increasingly manipulated by a small clique of movie and media professionals, its own outcry is barely above whispering level.

True, the academy every so often amends its rules to try to contain an ever more creative series of cunning and calculated Oscar campaign maneuvers. But this is at best a Band-Aid approach. What's needed from the academy is more the regulatory equivalent of a full-body cast.

Here are my suggested reforms, which could be enacted immediately by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to untarnish their golden boy.

1) Tame the cash monster

Every year, it's the same complaint by the movie and media elite: Too much money is spent on Oscar campaigns. And, just as in politics, the argument can be made that the money perverts the election process. But the counterargument follows that there's no way to control what studios, production companies, distributors and sometimes even the talent themselves spend to push their product or performance for an Academy Award. On the one hand, there's the free-speech, free-market dilemma. On the other, there's the controversy over why it's impossible to know specifically how much is spent to promote a movie for an Oscar, and how much is spent to promote the movie in general.

Given that only movies shown during a given calendar year are eligible for Academy Awards consideration, it would stand to reason that the film industry would spend all its general promotion and advertising dollars by Dec. 31. Not so. Even on its own Web site, the motion picture academy establishes that Oscar campaigning kicks off each November and continues through the day in March of the next year when final ballots are due.

For instance, certain pictures in December are platformed (translation: shown in just one or two major markets, usually New York and Los Angeles) in order to be eligible for the Academy Awards, but then aren't opened wide (translation: in a theater near you) until after Jan. 1. In other cases, Oscar-eligible movies that opened earlier in the year now have video and DVD versions hitting the marketplace after Jan. 1. And none of this includes the various contractual obligations, made to satisfy the egos of "talent," that force studios and others to spend large amounts on Oscar promotion for even the year's worst films.

Given the money murkiness, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences stands idly by watching the spending levels soar. But even allowing the studios their free hand with general promotion, there is indeed a way for the Academy of Arts and Sciences to place a specific cap Oscar campaign spending. The key lies in the registered trademarks and copyrights owned by the governing body for phrases like "Oscar," "Academy Awards," "Oscar Night" or the statuette itself.

All the academy has to do is enact new rules differentiating between general media publicity and Oscar-targeted media publicity between Nov. 1 and the following March, and then decide on a set maximum figure for Oscar-specific promotion to be spent on any one film. This differentiation could run the gamut from network TV, cable, radio, newspaper, magazine, and Internet advertising to media kits, books, toys, gadgets and all the other ancillary crap that pours out of Hollywood only to end up in landfills or on eBay.

Since most of this campaigning is concentrated on academy voting members living in Hollywood and New York, a small team of academy-hired accountants could easily keep track of the spending for every film (this year there were 248 eligible feature-length films) -- although admittedly it does get trickier when those big media companies employ synergistic cross-promotions for their movies.

On the simplest level, say a studio buys a full-page ad in the New York Times for "Big Budget Extravaganza" on Jan. 15. If anywhere in that ad, the registered trademarks and/or copyrighted property belonging to the academy are mentioned or pictured, then the media buy counts as Oscar campaigning. If not, it's general publicity. (To work, this would have to include publicity containing quotes from film journalists and critics that mention the academy's trademarks and/or copyrighted property.)

Penalties for going over budget would be determined by the academy, which needs to put more teeth in its punishments anyway. Simply taking away Oscar ceremony tickets isn't that big a deal: Most people in the industry dread sitting through that interminable show anyway and welcome any excuse to miss it. But threatening to remove a film from Oscar consideration might not be too draconian.

2) The buck stops where?

The nanosecond that the final Academy Award envelope is opened and the best picture announced, the jockeying for the next year's Oscar officially begins. After all, key ad placement for the Hollywood trade papers is practically booked the day after. By summer, strategies are at full throttle. In the fall, hours if not weeks of discussions take place among film company executives, producers, agents, managers, lawyers and publicists about which talent should be nominated in which categories. And so on, ad nauseam.

It is understandable, then, that Oscar campaign teams are bigger than Third World armies, consisting not just of in-house publicity machines but outside public relations and marketing consultants or agencies ranging from one-man offices to worldwide combines.

Depending on who won and who lost last time out, the best and brightest of these promoters-for-hire are put under contract within days of the Oscar telecast. It's the same clique year after year. Some are young and hungry go-getters who attack Oscar with the same no-holds-barred manner that wild animals go after fresh meat. Others are geriatric flacks whose heydays were in decades past, who can't see a film all the way through without catnapping, and who are employed merely because they're contemporaries of the geezers who make up a too-substantial portion of the academy's 5,732 voting members.

In recent years, whenever a studio has been accused of an Oscar campaigning sin -- like bad-mouthing someone else's picture or floating a false rumor -- the first response has been deny, deny, deny. Then it's blame, blame, blame. Inevitably that falls first on the executive who complained about it, or the journalist who uncovered it, instead of the person who committed it. Too often, the culprit is an outside independent contractor demonstrating what is described as "overzealousness." An apology usually follows.

As a result, the studios' paid outside agitators promulgate a vicious cycle of dirty tricks, while the executives get to keep their hands clean. At the very least, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should decree that each moviemaker is responsible for the actions of everybody on a film's payroll, including anyone who transgresses. In other words, the movie's studio will be penalized even if wrongdoing is unmasked by an outside independent contractor. In a situation where two films may be involved -- say an actress hires a personal publicist to campaign for her performances in two movies she appeared in that year -- both studios must accept punishment. Part of the penalty assessed must include a public announcement of the wrongdoing to the media.

If this sounds like a sneaky way to start limiting the use of outside publicists and marketers in Oscar campaigns, it is. Sure, they're allowed to earn a living just like everyone else, but some are truly out of control. It's time to rein them in -- and the only way to do that is to make the studio that hired them pay for their mistakes.

3) Those who vote must also sit and watch

You might think that, given the film industry's reputation for cutting-edge technology, the academy would by now have developed a foolproof system to ensure that its members have properly screened all the Oscar-eligible feature films. In fact, there's none in place.

Instead, the academy lulled itself into a false sense of security by agreeing that its voting membership can judge the movies by watching them on videocassette, and now on DVD, in the comfort of their homes, instead of in the theaters where they were intended to be viewed. I know too many Academy members who all last year did not set foot into a cineplex -- not because of age or infirmity but because of laziness and privilege. This noxious habit of judging Oscar worthiness based on how a movie plays on a TV screen is an affront to the motion picture art form.

The videocasettes were first allowed in order to encourage academy voters to see as many of the eligible films as possible. It hasn't worked. At least during an academy-sponsored theater screening, voters must overcome the public shame of walking out in the middle of a film in front of their academy colleagues; but in the privacy of a voter's home, who's to know if that videocassette was ejected after 10 minutes, or even never put into the VCR at all?

Then there's the problem that all the cassettes descend on the voters all at once. With this year's 248 eligible feature-length films, that could mean as many as 100 or more videos (not every moviemaker can afford this Oscar campaign perk) to watch in just over six weeks' time -- difficult even without the Christmas and New Year's holidays.

Thanks to this glaring failure, the Publisher's Clearing House sweepstakes may well be fairer than the Oscars. The time has come to make the judging process as rigorous as the ballot-counting process.

The academy already has taken baby steps in this direction. For instance, it cleaned up the nominating process in its short film and documentary categories. (Sources tell me that, at one point, the situation was so bad that academy members voting on documentaries would arrive at the theater with flashlights, then shine them 15 minutes into the running time of an entrant in a sort of Gong Show-like yea or nay on whether the screening should continue.)

The academy needs to devise a high-tech way of policing its members. Smart cards with photo IDs could ensure that all the movies were screened by each academy voter. Videocassettes and DVDs could feature special chips that tattle on anyone trying to take shortcuts. The videocassettes or DVD could be distributed all year long, as soon as the eligible movies open, in order to space them out for the benefit of voters.

Alternately, there's the most obvious solution of all: demand that voters see the movies in real movie theaters, where big-screen epics will be seen as they deserve to be, and attendance can be taken.

4) Formalize the ballot

A rash of rumors swirls every year about Oscar voting irregularities. These range from unsubstantiated scandals about down-on-their-luck academy members selling their votes to the highest bidding studio, or just handing over their unmarked ballots for promises of employment, to less tawdry tales about assistants voting for the boss, or kids marking up Dad's ballot.

Too much doubt and suspicion already undermine Oscar results. Who hasn't heard the urban legend that Marisa Tomei's name was said by mistake and someone else really won in her best supporting actress category? (Not true.)

Just as in a political election (or for that matter, the recent Screen Actors' Guild debacle), the more safeguards the better, even when it concerns Oscar. The academy should stop letting its members fill out the ballots so informally. Instead, it should set up polling centers around the country and overseas so it can confirm each voter's identity and ensure that each voter fills out his or her ballot. This needs to be done for both nominations and final balloting. Members unable to go to the polls two years in a row would lose their voting status.

5) Justice, Oscar-style

Spokesmen for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences repeatedly tell reporters that its honchos only investigate Oscar wrongdoing if they learn about it, and that in most cases they depend on journalists to alert them to it. But so far this year, despite all the Oscar trash-talking in the media, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences remains near-mute -- save for one "Important Note" published on its official Web site from the board of governors:

"This year as in the past, you may be importuned by advertisements, promotional gifts, dinner invitations and other lobbying tactics in an attempt to solicit your vote.

"Though the crude solicitations that occasionally surfaced in early years seem to be a thing of the past, we would ask each individual Academy member to be on guard against inappropriate attempts to influence your vote, and to register your displeasure with anyone who might make such an attempt.

"The more emphatically that all of us can convey to the industry and the wider public that excellence in filmmaking is the ONLY factor we consider on casting our Academy Award votes, the more reason the world will have to respect our judgment."

Pathetic, no? Time and time again, the academy has fought for its registered trademarks and copyrighted property and broadcast show more fiercely than it ever has for the Oscar process. There are the annual brouhahas over who is daring to sell a statuette, or which advertising is inappropriate. But where are the slapped wrists of those Oscar wannabes who break the rules?

Instead, Oscar's painful punishments are reserved for the messengers in the media. A few reporters covering the Oscar campaigns are privately complaining about being harassed by movie industry moguls with powerful publicity machines, or by Internet columnists, or even by other journalists.

The academy need only look to itself for the reason why there's so much bad publicity surrounding the Oscars right now. It's time for it to name its own version of a special prosecutor: a three-person jury that can act as an ombudsman to investigate and rule on any and all charges of Oscar misdeeds in a timely fashion. Any findings of wrongdoing by the jury would be made public. To avoid conflicts of interest, jury members would recuse themselves from matters involving anyone they've worked with within the last three years.

All complaints of impropriety could be made to the jury, who would know the names of the accusers but not reveal them to the membership at large or the public. The jury also would examine all media on a daily basis for Oscar transgressions and act on them as seriously if they were a formal complaint. Oscar justice could finally be done.

Nikki Finke

Nikki Finke is Salon's Hollywood correspondent and the West Coast editor for New York magazine.

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