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How the Oscars shortchange voters -- and movie fans

When will the Academy admit that its decision since 2004 to give voters less time to consider worthy films and performances is a disaster?

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Mark Harris
Mark Harris Illustration Quickhoney

How the Oscars shortchange voters — and movie fans

To get my first column started, here’s a quiz: What do Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, Adrien Brody in The Pianist, and Marcia Gay Harden in Pollock have in common? Two things: All of them won Oscars — and today none of them would stand a chance.

Academy Award nominations used to be announced around Valentine’s Day, with trophies handed out in late March. Three years ago, that changed; nominations now come in late January. By the time you read this, any Oscar ballot that hasn’t already been mailed won’t be counted. And if you don’t feel you’ve caught up with the year’s best movies yet, you’re not alone.

When this revamp took effect in early 2004, we heard all kinds of rationales. Ratings were down; the Oscar campaign season had gotten too long, too heated, and too noisily Miramaximalist; and the growing number of awards groups threatened to render the Oscars, which came last, irrelevant. Three years later, it’s time for the Academy to face the fact that this ”experiment” in shortening the Oscar schedule has not only been a complete failure but is doing actual damage to the awards and the integrity of the process.

Here’s a lack-of-progress report. The move has had little effect on TV ratings: In a 300-channel/on-demand universe, the Oscars will never regain the audience they achieved 30 years ago, when the show aired as late as April. As for relevance, guess what? The Oscars still come last. What’s more, now that every city larger than Cedar Rapids has a film critics’ association, the pre-Oscar prize-giving period has become a frantic, compressed primary-season scrum. United 93 has taken New York! The Departed has won Boston! Now all eyes turn to Dallas-Fort Worth! All this is monitored by the entertainment blogosphere in a tone that defaults too often to peculiar belligerence and premature e-speculation. Every time the phrases ”It’s a lock!” ”It’s dead in the water!” or ”The backlash has begun!” are applied to movies that haven’t actually opened yet, the smell of sulfur fills the air.

As for the tighter schedule magically creating briefer and more genteel Oscar campaigns, if there’s a single person in Hollywood who believes this, please drop me a line as soon as you get Wi-Fi in your sensory-deprivation tank. This year, Fox Searchlight has done everything but trademark the color yellow in its attempt to drive the Little Miss Sunshine bus all the way to the Kodak Theatre. One of the season’s ripest ironies may be the company’s mammoth effort to secure prizes for a movie that makes such acute fun of the American obsession with winning. (Another is the pretense that Jennifer Hudson is a supporting actress, not a co-lead. Wasn’t the point of Dreamgirls that you shouldn’t demote someone just because she doesn’t look like Beyoncé?) And ad copy remains preposterously overreaching: Did you know Forest Whitaker’s work in The Last King of Scotland is the ”most universally acclaimed performance of the decade”? I guess not using the word ”century” represents the new spirit of restraint the Academy had in mind.

None of this would matter much if the schedule weren’t also causing a serious new problem: There’s less time than ever for the actual consideration mentioned in those ubiquitous ”for your consideration” ads — especially when a dozen important movies seem to open just before the ball drops in Times Square. Yes, Academy members are sent stacks of DVDs, although often at the last minute. This year’s nominations won’t tell us what voters think are the year’s best movies, only what they got around to watching and what they didn’t. More specifically, we’ll find out whether a worthy crop of movies that opened late in December in limited release — Letters From Iwo Jima, Children of Men, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Painted Veil, Venus — got watched at all.

That uncertainty is an alarm bell announcing a profoundly broken system. You don’t have to be rooting for these pictures to hope that they’re at least seen. After a long day, will an Oscar voter choose the 92-minute Notes on a Scandal instead of the 160-minute The Good Shepherd? Are the subtitles of Pan’s Labyrinth or Iwo Jima okay for tomorrow, but not right now? Since voters now have 16 fewer tomorrows to play with, the chances of small, deserving films — the ones still on your own gotta-see lists — may suffer a serious blow. In past years, a movie like The Pianist, which didn’t begin to generate awards buzz until January, could get a look from voters later in the month. And 17 years ago, it took every available day for voters to get themselves to theaters to see My Left Foot, but enough of them eventually did so that Day-Lewis beat, fair and square, a pair of much higher-profile front-runners. A thrilling moment like that is why we still watch the Oscars, and it probably wouldn’t happen now. That’s a shame — especially since it would be every bit as easy for the Academy to fix this problem as it was for them to create it.

In response to this column, a number of people have written to say that the movie studios are more to blame for the end-of-year logjam than the Academy. For Mark Harris’ thoughts on that, click here.