What Does the Academy’s Flurry of Changes Mean for the Oscars?

AMPAS

AMPAS

New rules reflect changing times, make voting easier and even redefine what a movie is

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has had a busy week. On Wednesday morning, it announced new campaign rules for the 87th Academy Awards. On Thursday, it revealed the names of 271 artists and executives who were being invited to join the Academy. And on Friday, it unveiled changes in the rules for eight different Oscar categories.

Decisions on all of those fronts had been made by the Board of Governors on Tuesday night, and then doled out one day at a time for the rest of the week. None qualify as the kind of profound changes that could transform the Oscar landscape the way the move from five to 10 Best Picture nominations did, but together they impact a number of categories in ways that range from substantial to minor.

Also read: New Oscar Rules Limit Acting Nominations, Require DVD Screeners

Here’s what they all mean, category by category:

Acting
A new rule limits studios to submitting no more than 10 actors and 10 actresses for each eligible movie. Its chief effect will be to substantially reduce the size of the “Reminder List of Eligible Releases” booklet available to voters, which in the past has run into the hundreds of pages as it listed every credited performer in every qualifying movie.

The rule may also cause ruffled feathers among performers who aren’t submitted (or their agents), though only in the rarest of occasions of films having more than 10 actors or 10 actresses who think they deserve awards attention. But those films are so rare as to be almost irrelevant.

Coupled with the fact that actors and actresses will now be listed separately on the reminder list, the main result will be that voters won’t have to squint quite so hard at the fine print to remember who’s eligible for the acting awards.

Also read: 10 First-Half Movies That Might Have a Shot at Oscars

Best Picture
In the aftermath of the Best Picture win for 1998’s “Shakespeare in Love,” and its parade of five producers trooping to the Oscar stage to make speeches, AMPAS got tough and reduced to three the number of producers who could be nominated for a film. That hard-and-fast rule only lasted for a few years, until it forced the Academy to deny producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa a Best Picture nomination for “Little Miss Sunshine,” even though the Producers Guild and the Academy Producers Branch agreed that the two men deserved it.

Since then, the Academy has frequently made exceptions to the three-producer rule, with eight films in the last five years (including two winners, “The Hurt Locker” and “12 Years a Slave”) sporting more than three winners. Now, a new rule will make it even easier to have more than three nominees, by treating a producing team as a single producer.

The upshot may be a few films that will have four nominated producers without having to go through the hearing process to be granted an exception. And it may come as a late nod to Berger and Yerxa — who were the odd men out among the five “Little Miss Sunshine” producers simply because as a producing team, it was easier to trim that film’s roster of producers to three by eliminating them together.

Animated Feature
When the nomination process in the Best Animated Feature category changed last year to allow Academy members to vote after watching DVDs, some in the field wondered if it could hurt the small, largely foreign films that barely qualified and might not have the budget to be making and sending discs to everybody.

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But now the rules specify that animated-feature entries must include DVD screeners. So if you don’t have the budget for screeners you can’t even enter. The move simply reinforces the fact that voting in the category is shifting from theatrical screenings to home viewing.

Documentary feature
The Academy’s Documentary Branch tried to limit the number of nominations a couple of years ago when it introduced stiffer requirements for qualifying runs; the idea, then-governor Michael Moore said at the time, was to eliminate the sneaky qualifying runs used by made-for-TV docs and to cut down on vanity releases where a filmmaker would “four-wall” an out-of-the-way theater for a week to become eligible for the Oscar.

But those rules didn’t stop the flood of entries, which hit a record 151 last year. A new rule, though, could have a significant impact: Films are now required to show a minimum of four times a day for a week in Los Angeles and New York, a far more expensive proposition than the previous twice-a-day four-walling.

Of course, the year is half over, and some docs have already qualified under the old rules. An Academy spokesperson told TheWrap that 2014 films that already had qualifying runs under the existing twice-a-day rule will be grandfathered in, and will indeed be eligible even if they don’t meet the new requirements.

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So the rule should cut down on the number of submissions in the category — but not as sharply as if it had been introduced in January instead of June.

Original song
The Best Original Song nomination for “Ordinary Love” earlier this year went to Paul Hewson, Dave Evans, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen — but under the rule that will go into effect this year, they would have been able to be nominated as U2 if they preferred.

By allowing bands to receive a nomination (and, possibly an Oscar) under the group name, the Academy has made a change that likely won’t have much impact: Since 2000, the only bands to be nominated for their songs are U2 (twice), Counting Crows and Three 6 Mafia.

Also read: Why U2’s Bono Considered Nelson Mandela His ‘Bandleader’

And do we really think the members of Three 6 Mafia would have taken this option, knowing it meant that they’d only win a single statuette to share between the three of them?

Production design
Technology advances quickly; the Academy advances more slowly. The new changes in the Best Production Design category recognize the blurring of lines in the new era of digital cinema by allowing a digital artist “primarily responsible” for the look of a film to be honored with a nomination, rather than restricting it to production designers, art directors and set decorators.

This could have impacted a few nominees in recent years, including “Gravity,” “Life of Pi,” “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “Avatar.”

It’s similar to a question cinematographers have been grappling with for a few years, though to date they haven’t made any changes in that award.

Short films
This is another concession to changing times, and one that surprisingly does away with a fundamental assumption under which the Oscars have operated – that a film is something shown theatrically.

In the past, an online debut automatically disqualified any film, including shorts, from being eligible for Oscars. But now, recognizing that theatrical distribution is an avenue distinctly unfriendly to the short-film format, the governors will allow films to qualify for Oscar by winning a top award at 78 different film festivals, regardless of whether they have debuted non-theatrically.

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The change marks a huge concession by the Academy — and even if it is limited to two categories, it is a profound bit of redefinition that will make it easier for short films to pursue all available avenues of distribution.

Student Academy Awards
One of the bedrock assumptions of the Student Academy Awards is that everyone’s a winner. While the honors are separated into gold, silver and bronze levels, the filmmakers are brought to L.A. for a week of activities where they’re all treated equally, before anybody knows who’s won what.

But it was harder to maintain that attitude when only the gold-medal winners qualified for the big Oscars — witness one bronze-level winner at this year’s awards, who used her speech to apologize to her parents for not winning the gold medal.

But it turns out that all Student Oscar recipients really are equal when it comes to Oscar qualifying, because the Academy has now made all winners, regardless of level, eligible for the Oscars.

Also read: Student Oscars Go to Stanford, Columbia and Brigham Young

Campaign rules
Make no mistake, the new campaign regulations announced on Wednesday were designed to send a message to one branch. They didn’t prohibit all Academy members from contacting other members to promote their nomination — they just prohibited members of the Music Branch from doing so.

It would have been easy to craft a rule that applied to everybody and didn’t single out one group of voters. But four months after rescinding a nomination because Bruce Broughton sent emails to branch members calling attention to his song, his fellow governors weren’t interested in sweeping regulations. Instead, they wanted to send a message to a branch that some privately complained has long been an out-of-touch hotbed of cronyism. So they spanked them publicly.

Also read: Academy Changes Oscar Campaign Rules for the Music Branch

Membership
Since shortly after Dawn Hudson took over as Academy CEO three years ago, AMPAS has been on a public campaign to increase diversity within the ranks of an organization long thought to be the province of old white men. And this year’s 271 invitees were partly in keeping with that push, including a substantial number of minority and foreign-born artists and executives.

But under current president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, an African-American woman, the organization does not appear to be pushing quite so hard to show its diversity. About 25 percent of the new invitees are women — the smallest percentage in three years, and one that is about the same as the overall makeup of the Academy, as revealed in a Los Angeles Times investigation in 2012.

Also read: Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Barkhad Abdi Invited to Join Motion Picture Academy

So the Academy is getting younger and more ethnic (welcome, Lupita Nyong’o and Barkhad Abdi), and a little less male … but it’s also the Academy, with plenty of room for the old white guys.