The Long Shot: Free to be... you and me
When the Academy announced a fortnight ago that they were pulling next year's Oscar nominations announcement a full five days forward from the initially scheduled date, you'd have been forgiven for thinking -- from the howls of anguished confusion, rippled with the odd delighted cackle, across the Oscar blogosphere -- that they'd instead ruled all non-3D features ineligible for awards, or at least appointed James Franco the ceremony's solo host.
Some pundits' sense of disorientation was guilelessly geeky: We'll now know the Oscar slate for Best Film Editing before we do the Eddie nominees? Sacre bleu! Others, however, responded in a more conspiracy-minded fashion, sensing in the shift an open hostility to subordinate awards-season events. The rather specious explanation offered by the Academy for the move was that it was to allow voters more time to see the nominated films -- that it simultaneously allows them less time to see the far larger pool of films hunting for nominations was left tactfully unsaid.
Either way, what a difference five days makes. You wouldn't think so, given that film awards season is a parade I don't anyone has ever complained went by too quickly -- even after the Academy lopped a full month off the dog-and-pony show a few years back by moving the ceremony into February. But observe the intricate domino arrangement of the season's overstuffed cornucopia of precursor ceremonies and announcements -- I serve on the awards committee for the London Critics' Circle, and the selection of a date for even our comparatively modest shindig requires artful Battleship strategics -- and it becomes clearer how a slight schedule switch by the biggest player in the game muddles the natural order of things.
If the Oscar nominations now precede a Guild announcement (ASC, say, scheduled to unveil their nominees the day after the Academy) once regarded as a warm-up rituals, or if ballots are now due before the unlikely tastemakers of the National Society of Film Critics have their say, does that dent the smaller events' significance? Should it? Idealists would say no, but the echo chamber of awards punditry is not well-stocked with idealists: Time journalist Steven James Snyder opined that the Academy "clearly... made this move to dampen the luster of the [Golden] Globes," which will now air after Oscar nomination ballots are due -- and suggesting that the HFPA's more irreverent ceremony "will increasingly become a fringe affair."
This may be true from the tunnel-vision perspective of awards analysts, but certainly not from that of the viewing masses who tune into the Golden Globes solely to watch A-list stars dress up and get drunk -- they can scarcely remember who won the next day, much less care about what influence those wins will have further down the road. If the Globes are a fringe affair, so are the Academy Awards -- and a less fun one to boot. Furthermore, it's hard to see why the Academy would take pointed measures to undermine the relevance of a ceremony that, in recent years, has seemed less concerned than usual with pre-empting the Oscars.
That's not just in their reliably dippy Comedy/Musical slates (trust me, voters didn't nominate "Burlesque" for Best Picture to rubber-stamp its Academy appeal), but in loftier areas too: when they handed their top prize to "Atonement" in 2007, in the face of the film's rapidly waning Oscar buzz, it was an act of loyalty, rather than prediction or coercion. As such the Globes have long projected a shade more personality into their choices than, say, the Broadcast Film Critics' Association, who actively advertise their record of anticipating Oscar winners. And if the Academy's compression of their voting calendar prods an outfit like the HFPA into further such off-consensus voting, that surely a development to be applauded rather than jeered.
All of which brings the conversation round to what purpose precursors should serve at all. The very word is problematic, implying a level of indicative consequence, and that's duly how they're treated in the industry. The Globes, BAFTAs, Guild awards and even some of the high-end critics' awards are primarily evaluated in terms of the likelihood of their choices mirroring the Academy's -- to the point that a group like the NSFC is labelled "perverse" in some quarters for handing their top prize to such anti-bait items as "Melancholia" or "Yi Yi." If all voting groups, however, were equivalently independent in their selections -- serving up a buffet of favorites from the year, rather than collectively glomming onto a handful of ordained frontrunners -- it's not just just the season that would become more interesting: the Academy's own final verdict could be more richly informed too.
If it seems awards season becomes more predictable every year, that's not an accident. The number of pre-Oscar prizes has mushroomed alarmingly in the last 20-odd years, with the invention of Producers', Actors' and certain other Guild awards buttressed by the BAFTAs' turn-of-the-century decision to precede the Oscars (and shift to an Oscar-echoing five-nominee format), as well as the increasing media attention afforded the misnamed BFCA Critics' Choice Awards since their inauguration in 1995.
And while the proliferation would appear to promise more prizes for everyone, it all too often comes down to more redundant recognition of single contenders who, however outstanding, are inevitably overloaded: can an awards-guzzling performance like Helen Mirren's in "The Queen" really be thatirrefutably superior to the competition, or are such sweeps built more on the desire for agreement? And if so, who really wins aside from the trophy-laden champion?
Certainly not the precursor ceremonies, the repetitiousness of which makes them both swiftly forgettable and dubiously prestigious: how many people really remember the odd SAG wins that aren't cashed in for Oscar statuettes a few weeks later? And certainly not the Oscars, the dwindling viewership figures of which can't be entirely unrelated to the fact that many of the night's acceptance speeches have generally been rehearsed and televised several times over in the preceding weeks. If, as some pundits have suggested, the acceleration of their nomination announcement is a preliminary move to bring the ceremony itself closer to January, this may yet be a gesture of retaliation against the pre-Oscars shows.
Should this become a fixed schedule, some precursors will inevitably shift forward too, in dull Simon-says fashion: just look how dutifully the Producers' Guild hopped to attention after the Academy announced the expansion to 10 Best Picture nominees in 2009. But there's only so far they can bend without infringing on the notion of voting on a calendar year's worth of releases. (Though if this helped disperse the annual December prestige-picture glut, that'd be no bad thing.)
Rather, precursor awards should look on the potential de-synchronization of the awards calendar as an opportunity to establish their own distinct voting identities, to divorce themselves from the notion of Oscar clairvoyance. The Hollywood Foreign Press can go with their bad Euro-trash selves. BAFTA members can recognize British films beyond just those pre-approved by overseas awards bodies. Guilds can use their specific professional expertise to recognize outstanding technical achievements that laymen wouldn't -- and not just throw idle bones to the production and costume designers of "The Descendants." Go free, voters. Five days may not make a lot of difference right now, but a window has been opened.