Oscar Postmortem: Lessons learned from the 2011 Awards Season

Well that was fun, wasn’t it?

This year’s sad excuse for an Oscar telecast will no doubt go down in Academy Awards history as being one of the most boring ever, but the producers and mismatched hosts certainly didn’t have the benefit of either upsets or great speeches occurred during the broadcast.  Oh, apologies, were unexpected wins in cinematography and art direction supposed to be true television drama?  No, but it’s not even about upsets at this point.  Part of the fun with awards season is seeing who pulls out a close race at the last minute.  Besides some questions between “Avatar” and “Hurt Locker” winning best picture last year and the race between “Departed,” “Babel” and “Little Miss Sunshine” in 2007 that hasn’t really been the case.  Will that change in 2012?  We can only hope.  

That being said, it’s the rest of the season where the maneuvering and surprises are really occurring.  Yes, “The King’s Speech” was a front runner after the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals in September, but by December it seemed impossible for any film but “The Social Network” to win it all.  Welcome January and the whole season turned upside down.  And that’s nothing new.  Such turns are part of the fun of following the season.  Unfortunately, the Oscars have now ended all the fun with a consistent thud for the past two years. 

After taking a few days to gather my thoughts over the ups and downs of the past six months, its clear there are a few lessons to be learned from the 2010-2011 awards season.

The season needs to get shorter
Seven years ago, the Academy smartly moved the telecast from a traditional late March slot to a late February slot.  This made ABC happy because the ratings grabber was now part of February sweeps.  It made studios happy because “in theory” they would spend less on shorter Academy campaigns (ha!).  But, most importantly, it meant the public wasn’t celebrating the best films of the previous year  almost four months into the new year.  If this year is any indication, there is no reason not to make the schedule shorter again.  There are too many pseudo awards events between the end of October and the current Academy Awards date that only lead to Oscar fatigue and a lack of drama once the main category winners are revealed (when the biggest upsets over the past two years are best adapted screenplay and best cinematography, you’ve got a problem).  The NFL’s attempt at extending the regular season to 18 games may be the final catalyst to move the Oscar date earlier, but at a minimum the Academy should look at the first weekend of February or — even better — the last weekend in January.   And yes, that may mean the Grammys would be revealed after the Oscars, but that’s O.K.  The world will still keep turning and life will go on.

Ballots got sent in early…again
The big takeaway from Melissa Leo winning the best supporting actress Oscar wasn’t that Academy members didn’t care about her increasingly odd behavior or her strange for your consideration ads.  In fact, it was hard to find anyone who wasn’t talking about it. Instead, it points to the fact that a large portion of members send their ballots in earlier rather than later.  It’s also one reason why the controversy over Nicolas Chartier’s E-mail to members last year, in clear violation of Academy rules, had so little effect on the best picture vote as “Hurt Locker” still won.  By the time nominations have been announced, most Academy members know who they are voting for.  In fact, the approximate three week long voting period is likely unnecessary.  Sure there are members overseas who need to submit their votes, but in this digital age are paper ballots really needed?  (Another example of why the season is unjustifiably too long).

The Academy didn’t dislike ‘The Social Network’ they just liked ‘The King’s Speech’ more

If I see one more tweet or hear one more person somehow insinuate that it’s a tragedy that “The Social Network” didn’t win best picture and that “The King’s Speech” is one of the winners ever I might pull a Keifer Sutherland.  “Speech” is a critically acclaimed drama and don’t give me that “It’s just a good HBO movie” crap either.  The film had an 88 on Metacritic, higher than “Inception” (74), “The Kids Are All Right” (86), “Black Swan” (79),  “127 Hours” (82) and “The Fighter” (79) and “True Grit” (80) .  Only “Toy Story 3” (92), “Winter’s Bone” (90) and “Network” (95) had higher averages.  And let’s be clear, there isn’t a big difference between 88 and 95 with the nation’s top critics.  “Speech” is not “Crash.”  It’s not “A Beautiful Mind.”  It’s not “Shakespeare in Love,” “Driving Miss Daisy” or “Ordinary People.”  Give the movie some respect.  And as Spielberg noted Sunday night, there are a hell of a lot of amazing films — even in the past decade — that didn’t win best picture. And when it comes down to it, more members just liked “Speech” more than “Network.” C’est la vie haters.

10 pictures works
When the new expanded best picture field was revealed last year there was some grumbling after “The Blind Side” made the cut.  Whether the disdain for the blockbuster’s inclusion increased or decreased after “Side’s” constant rotation on HBO remains to be seen, but you haven’t heard one peep that there were any undeserving nominees this year.  In fact, “The Town,” “Another Year,” “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Rabbit Hole” all could have made the cut without setting off alarms.  Considering “Finding Neverland,” “Seabiscuit,” “Chocolat,” “The Cider House Rules” were all relatively recent nominees  with just five nominees, that proves the Academy now has enough taste to continue to select 10 deserving films.

You can’t ram a potential Oscar winner down the Academy’s throat
Sony Pictures and their award season consultants may have made a huge tactical error regarding “The Social Network.”  While many studios let holiday box office and critical reception speak for their pictures during the Christmas break and the first week of January, “The Social Network” went full board with a big advertising spend and numerous events all over town.  After dominating the media landscape in December by winning almost every single critic’s group honor, it just became too much, too fast and too soon.  And when publicists for studios out of the best picture race started talking about it (“What are they doing?”) red flags were raised.

The overall shorts voting process has to change
It’s too difficult, at least for this pundit, to determine if there were any animated, live action or documentary shots mistaken left out of the nominated fields, but the voting results — for the most part — show that some true change is needed.  Right now, to vote, members have to view all of the shorts at Academy screenings held mostly just during the week and during the day.  That means a primarily retired and older audience is voting.  While the live action short went to a deserving film, “God of Love” (and there were other worthy winners), the animated short and documentary short winners were certainly not up to par.  There is no reason the Academy cannot figure out a registration system with Vimeo, Apple or even YouTube to allow members to watch all of the shorts on their own, at their own schedule and then vote.  And not only will a bigger pool of voters lead to more appropriate winners, but make the overall membership realize just how important short films are to the industry. (You could also make the argument a watch at home system could work for foreign language film and best documentary as well, but hey, baby steps).

Tom Sherak may have outlasted his use as Academy president
It may be time for Tom Sherak to go.  Unlike Sid Ganis, Sherak’s short tenure has featured one near disastrous Oscar show (last year) and one utterly disastrous show (this year).  Sherak is responsible for hiring the producers for the show and he hasn’t chosen well so far. Most Academy presidents last around four years.  Will the board of governors give him one more shot?  We’ll see, but I’m not sure he’d have my vote.

People have to stop turning down hosting the Oscars
If this year is any indication, some of Hollywood’s biggest talent needs to stop turning down the chance to host the big show.  There has to be some pride here in representing your industry (cough, the one that has no doubt made you a millionaire numerous times over).  Sure, there are jitters and nervousness, but Ben Stiller, Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Will Smith, Robert Downey, Jr., Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock and Will Ferrell (or any combination of the aforementioned)?  Bite the bullet and save the sinking ship.  Quickly.  Before they invite Ellen DeGeneres to host again.

It might be time to leave the Kodak Theater

There are few alternative venues at the moment, but it might be time for the Academy to end its run at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood.  Production designers are finding it difficult to come up with new sets and concepts in the facility and they will only become more hamstrung once the new permanent Cirque du Solei show begins later this year.  Unfortunately, the Nokia theater is just a horrible black box and Staples already shuts down for the Grammys kicking the Lakers, Kings and Clippers out for over two weeks.  Perhaps that covered NFL football stadium isn’t such a bad idea…or, how about taking Oscar on the road?  

The Governors Awards need to be televised
While having the honorees for the yearly Academy lifetime achievement awards come out for a bow during the big show has become something purists will have to live with there is absolutely no reason why the Governors Awards themselves can’t be televised.  The Academy puts in a good deal of effort into the production of the two-year-old endeavor and it seems like perfect, classy material for TNT, AMC, HBO or even big show network ABC on a Saturday night.  AMPAS is doing these legends a disservice by not presenting their tributes to the widest audience possible.  It just makes no sense and, honestly, is a bit insulting to the honorees.

And for the most part that’s a wrap until potential players reveal themselves for the next go around at this year’s Cannes Film Festival in May.   Until then, remember “Like Crazy,” Anton Yelchin, Elizabeth Olsen and “Rango” as potential players for next season.

For the latest entertainment news and awards commentary year round follow Gregory Ellwood on twitter at @HitFixGregory.

Do you have any final thoughts on this year’s Oscars or awards season?  Share them below.