INDUSTRY INSIDER: The 30-Day Dilemma; Will Oscar's Schedule Change Crush Indie Films?
by Joe Leydon
[EDITORS NOTE: 20-year industry writer Joe Leydon, a professor of film history and critic for MSNBC, Variety, the Houston Press, and the San Francisco Examiner among other publications, is keeping a critical eye on business trends for this second installment in his new indieWIRE column.]
(indieWIRE: 08.27.02) -- Memo to maverick moviemakers and indie film enthusiasts: Quit your constant bitching about the Academy Awards in general and the Oscar telecast in particular. Why? Well, maybe this is nothing more than my skewed and cynical perspective, but it seems like every time the Academy members respond to criticism and try to update their bylaws or streamline their Oscarcast, indie films run a disproportionate risk of getting massively screwed.
Consider what very nearly happened three years ago, when the Academy's rules committee voted 11-to-1 to conflate documentary shorts and features into a single category. There was a lot of loose talk at the time about how this might slightly shorten the often interminable Oscar-cast by deleting one of those "minor awards" that "nobody cares about." (As opposed to one of those awards that "everybody" includes in their office Oscar pools.) The draconian proposal was rescinded only after Academy pooh-bahs were inundated with protests that such a measure would place documentary shorts at a competitive disadvantage.
Now we have an even more radical change in the offing, and it looks like there'll be no last-minute reprieve for the potentially disenfranchised. Last month, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced plans to move its annual awards ceremony ahead by one month, to late February from late March, on a trial basis for the next two years, starting in 2004.
Why? Some observers feel that the more image-conscious Academy members were shocked -- shocked, I tell you! -- by the furious nastiness of recent three-month marathon Oscar races, and want to decrease the time spent on mudslinging, backbiting, and purposeful rumor-mongering. (This, unfortunately, will make for far less interesting reading on the Drudge Report website.) But others, including some official Academy spokespeople, insist the date change is Oscar's way of re-establishing its own pre-eminence in an age when scores of other awards shows are clamoring for attention, diluting Oscar's impact and, not incidentally, having deleterious effect on the ratings for the annual Academy Awards telecast.
Michael Barker of Sony Pictures Classics believes the date change "will give more cachet to the (Oscar-cast), because now it won't be at end of 15 other awards shows." But Tom Ortenberg of Lions Gate thinks cachet has nothing to do with it. "As far as I'm concerned," says Ortenberg, "this is all about one thing: TV ratings. There's no real concern about other awards shows. The only thing that's really a stake is TV ratings. And my hunch is that if they move up a month and the TV ratings don't improve, they might move it right back."
The good news: For at least two years, the Academy will foreshorten the seemingly endless campaign for Oscar gold by major studios and indie distributors.
The bad news: Re-read the previous paragraph.
By lobbing an entire month off the schedule, the Academy greatly diminishes the amount of time any distributor can devote the generating word-of-mouth support for an indie film. To be sure, 30 days may not sound like a lot. But in an Oscar race, where indies are massively outspent and out-hyped by major studio marketing machines, time often is the only equalizing advantage that indies have.
And make no mistake about it: We're living in an age when, more than ever before, many indie outfits and specialty distributors are jockeying for Oscar nominations every bit as intensely as Hollywood majors, even to the point of plotting release strategies and pre-release buzz-manufacturing around Oscar deadlines. Last year, Fox Searchlight began its campaign to get Ben Kingsley nominated for "Sexy Beast" in