Just how ugly was this year’s Oscar race? On June 25, three months after A Beautiful Mind overcame an alleged negative whisper campaign to snag Best Picture, the board of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voted to explore the possibility of moving the awards show, usually held in late March, to late February, beginning in 2004. Is the Academy thinking less time equals less nastiness? As numerical genius John Nash might say: You do the math.
If the move is approved (a decision is about a month away) the Oscar season, which begins in earnest with the first critics’ awards in early December, will shrink from four long months to three. The main impetus for the switch, according to the Academy, is competition. ”There are just too many other awards shows in the three months before ours,” says Academy exec director Bruce Davis, adding that a reduction in campaign spending would be ”a desirable by-product.” How would the new date really affect Hollywood? It depends on whom you ask.
The Bad News Some fear that indie winners like Monster’s Ball’s Halle Berry or Boys Don’t Cry’s Hilary Swank could get lost in a shorter Oscar cycle. ”One of the things that worked in our favor is that it was more of a marathon than a sprint,” says Lions Gate president Tom Ortenberg, who oversaw Ball’s release. Agrees Swank publicist Troy Nankin: ”[Extra] time helped Hilary because it got to the point where people just couldn’t ignore her.” Ortenberg is also skeptical about the campaign-reform potential: ”If people want to say damaging, negative things about another film, they’ll still do it. They’ll just have to do it more quickly.” And studios accustomed to slowly rolling out Oscar contenders over several months would have a smaller window to cash in at the box office.
The Good News Not only might the studios save money on advertising, but they may also experience less mental anguish. Says DreamWorks marketing chief Terry Press of the awards season: ”It’s like having a root canal for weeks.”
The Bad News Faced with declining ratings despite moving the telecast from Monday to Sunday four years ago, ABC hoped the Academy would schedule the ceremony during the February sweeps period. Instead, the Academy is eyeing Feb. 29, 2004 — just after sweeps end. ”[ABC’s] view is that earlier is better,” shrugs Davis. ”But this is a hugely complicated move.” (He explains that balloting could not be completed any sooner.) Another complication could be increased competition for advertisers. Coming one month after the Super Bowl and bumping up against the Winter Olympics every four years, a February Oscarcast may have trouble luring big ad dollars. ”We don’t believe there will be an issue in regards to ad sales,” says network spokesman Kevin Brockman. ”The Academy Awards is the gold standard of awards shows and has often been called the Super Bowl for women.”
The Good News A late February date allows ABC, whose Oscar contract runs until 2008, to promote the show during sweeps and air it during a week when other networks traditionally run repeats. Plus, the net, which usually launches midseason series in March after the awards, can do so a full month earlier.