Music Branch’s Bruce Broughton: “The last thing we want to do is exclude worthy songs … but we don’t want to lower the bar, either”
Songwriters are mad, voters are puzzled, and the Academy's process for determining the Oscar Best Original Song nominees is in for good, hard scrutiny once the Oscars are over.
That's the fallout from this year's Oscar nominations, when one of the biggest shocks was that the Academy's Music Branch only found two songs deserving of a nomination.
It's not that those songs are bad. One of them, "Man or Muppet" from "The Muppets" (left), was the most delightful musical moment in any film of 2011, while the other, "Real in Rio" from "Rio" (below), provided a vibrant overture to that animated film.
But by limiting the nominees to those two, the branch left out well-received songs from Mary J. Blige, Elton John, Elvis Costello, Chris Cornell, Glenn Close and Brian Byrne, and eight-time Oscar winner Alan Menken, among many others.
In what I thought was a good year for Oscar-eligible songs, the Academy downsized to the bare minimum.
(And in a related development that has dismayed Muppet fans, the show's producers have decided not to have the nominated songs performed on the Oscar show.)
"Our initial reaction was surprise," said Bruce Broughton, an Academy governor from the Music Branch and the head of the branch's executive committee. "I thought there were more songs that would be nominated, and when I saw there were only two I was surprised, and grateful."
Surprised and grateful?
"Surprised that there were two nominees," Broughton told TheWrap. "And grateful that there were two nominees, because there could have been none."
But gratitude was in short supply for some members of the branch – including six-time nominee Diane Warren, who saw what happened as a more extreme replay of the previous year, when her song "You Haven't Seen the Last of Me," from "Burlesque," was passed over as only four songs made the cut.
"A year ago I woke up pretty pissed off and disappointed that my song hadn't gotten nominated," Warren told TheWrap. "It had just won a Golden Globe, it won all these other awards, it was the pivotal moment in that movie – how did it not get nominated? I was really mad, and I was like, this idiotic system has gotta change.
"And then you get this year, and I think this is a tipping point. Because it wasn't just me waking up going, 'What the fuck?' It was Elton John, and Mary J. Blige, and Alan Menken, and whoever else had horses in the race that didn't have enough points."
At issue is the Music Branch's process for determining nominees. Members of the branch view three-minute clips of the eligible songs in their films, and then score each song on a scale of 6-to-10 (with .5s allowed).
To be eligible, though, a song must have an average score of 8.25. If no songs reach that figure, the category is dropped; if only one does, that song and the next-highest scoring song are nominated. And if two, three, four or five songs hit the magic number, all are nominated.
If more than five make the cut, only the top five become nominees.
The 8.25 threshold is significantly higher than other Oscar categories that use the point system. In the Best Animated Feature category, for example, the same scale is used, but anything over 7.5 is eligible for a nomination.
In four of the last seven years, the Original Song category has had fewer than five nominees, a circumstance that last year's winner, Randy Newman, pointedly mentioned in his acceptance speech. "They could have found a fifth song from someone," said Newman.
"They're really going to have to rethink this, because it just doesn't work," said Warren. "Or they might as well just get rid of the category."
(Warren, right, photographed for TheWrap by Patrick Fraser.)
Broughton is well aware of the complaints; he's heard them from members himself, and he admits that the disgruntled ones might have a point.
"There were angry members that I spoke to, sure," he said. "And I can understand people getting ticked off, especially songwriters.
"Some people have said, 'Oh, you blew it this year.' I don't know. Maybe we blew it. Maybe we didn’t. As soon as the Oscars are over, we're going to look at it."
The key aspect that needs to be examined, Broughton said, is the 8.25 average demanded of nominees. "If we vote on a scale of 6-to-10, 8 seems to be a good, medium number," he said. "Is there some mathematical reason why we don't have more high scores? I don't know."
In fact, the reason is more likely psychological: A 6-to-10 scale is simply a 1-to-5 scale bumped up, but a score of 8 seems higher than a score of 3 would, and an 8.5 feels far closer to a perfect score than a 3.5 would.
The branch's executive committee, Broughton said, considered changing the numbers last year, after only four songs were nominated.
"The intent of the rule, whether or not it worked out this way, is to raise the level of quality in the song nominations," he said. "We talked about it last year, and asked, do we want to keep that system, knowing that there could have been no nominations? And we voted to keep it this way."
But with the two nominations, he added, the process will clearly come in for increased scrutiny. "I can promise you that we're going to take a hard look at the point system," he said. "We're going to try to see if we can get the rules to do what we hoped they would do: raise the quality of the nominated songs, so we can stand back proudly and look at our nominees.
"Maybe we need to overhaul the whole thing, but it hurts to think that we might have to lower our standards to bring more songs in."
For Diane Warren, the solution wouldn't involve lowering standards by changing the minimum number – rather, it would be the elimination of the point system altogether.
"I'd like to see it work the way it is for anything else," she said. "Just listen to the song. Do you love it? Does it work in the movie or not? If so, vote for it. If you don't like it, don’t vote for it.
"I hope they change it, because I'd like to get nominated again, and I don't think I will if they keep this shit up."
Broughton does not envision a return to the days of simply sending out a list of eligible songs and having members vote for their favorites; the current system of screening and scoring, he said, gives a chance to songs from smaller movies that might otherwise be unknown to members.
But he knows the branch is under pressure to consider changes, and he seems almost as eager as his critics to look into some of those changes.
"The last thing we want to do is exclude worthy songs," he said. "But we don't want to lower the bar, either.
"This year, we got two songs. They're good songs. We're hopeful that we can get good songs in the future, and get more of them."