The earliest Oscars ever leave academy voters — and Hollywood at large — scrambling

January 8, 2020 0 By JohnValbyNation

We all know the feeling of coming back from a leisurely holiday break to suddenly face a wall of deadlines. This year in Hollywood, that experience has had its own unique twist.

The voting period for this year’s Academy Awards nominations closed Tuesday afternoon — a full two weeks earlier than normal — a compressed timetable that forced Oscar campaigners to push their “for your consideration” blitzes forward and left many of the motion picture academy’s nearly 9,000 voting members scrambling to plow through piles of DVD screeners, make their lists and check them twice. Despite the academy’s frequent reminders, some it seems may have been unaware of the earlier deadline altogether, believing they still had more time to set aside for, say, Martin Scorsese’s sprawling, 3.5-hour gangster epic “The Irishman” or the black-and-white Czech war drama “The Painted Bird.”

“It was very rushed this year, and it was hard to watch over the holidays while traveling,” says Australian documentary filmmaker Eva Orner, who produced 2007’s Oscar winner “Taxi to the Dark Side. “A lot of screeners came late in the second half of December. I actually like to unplug over holidays, so it was very difficult.”

The awards season calendar, like the presidential election calendar or a religious calendar, has its own familiar rhythms and longstanding rituals and milestones, running from the early rush of fall festivals in Venice, Telluride and Toronto through the year-end critics group and guild nominations, the Golden Globes and other pre-Oscar awards shows and the nonstop screenings and cocktail parties.

Any change in that calendar is bound to create ripple effects through the entire awards ecosystem, from the consultants who strategize Oscar campaigns down to the designers who dress the stars for the red-carpet galas. And this year, the academy made a big one: After more than a decade of the Oscars being in late February or early March, the 92nd Academy Awards will be held Feb. 9, the earliest date ever.

Knowing the effect the shortened schedule would have, the academy gave its members — and all of Hollywood — plenty of time to prepare. In September 2018, the group’s 54-member board of governors, facing perennial concerns over steadily declining ratings for the Oscar telecast and complaints about awards fatigue, announced that the date of the 92nd Oscars would be moved up from Feb. 23 to Feb. 9, 2020. In October 2019, the academy began steadily sending its members nudges to remind them of this year’s key dates, an effort that has since intensified to nearly daily emails, robo-calls and text messages.

For some members, the constant stream of reminders has been a bit wearying. “They’ve been telling us for weeks: ‘It’s a shorter window. Vote. Vote. Vote,’ ” says one screenwriter, who declined to speak on the record due to having a film in this year’s awards race.

“I’ve never received so many emails from the academy,” says another member in the acting branch, who is also involved in a potential contender and wished to remain anonymous. “They’ve been extremely diligent. Do I wish I had more time? Yes. But I feel that way every year.”

Still, anecdotally, it seems some academy voters — perhaps having opted out of the organization’s notifications — may not have received the message. Last week, as the nominations deadline loomed, film journalist and longtime academy observer Mark Harris tweeted, “Based on my extremely informal survey of Oscar voters, a high number of them have NO idea that voting for nominations ends in three days,” adding, “I can’t imagine that isn’t going to affect this year’s nominations — I just don’t know how.”

One longtime awards consultant, who declined to be quoted by name because of the sensitivity of the subject, dismissed such apparently out-of-the-loop voters: “If you don’t know that voting ends Tuesday after the barrage of emails and texts that the academy has sent out, maybe you shouldn’t be allowed to vote. Maybe that speaks to a competency issue.”

Further complicating things, the academy has brought in hundreds of new members from foreign countries in recent years as part of its ongoing push to diversify its historically white male-dominated membership. To make it easier for these far-flung members to watch potential Oscar contenders — and in a perhaps overdue recognition that many no longer own DVD players — the organization made more films than ever available to stream this year via its online “Academy Screening Room” and a new Apple TV app.

Still, some have expressed concern that the shortened window for voting could be a disadvantage for smaller films — or late arrivals like Universal’s World War I epic “1917,” which began screening in earnest in late November but only opens wide on Friday — by making it harder for them to work their way to the top of members’ queues.

“I feel smaller films are definitely suffering from the rush and slipping through the cracks, with those released late in the year lost in the crowded field,” says Orner.

Syrian filmmaker Feras Fayyad says he is concerned that the shortened schedule could hurt movies like his shortlisted documentary, “The Cave,” about doctors under fire in the Syrian conflict, that have more difficult subject matter. “‘The Cave’ got a great start at the Toronto Film Festival, but the film has been described as hard to watch,” he says. “This year, many films have hard-to-watch subjects, and that makes so many of the academy voters delay watching the film in this short time.”

Adding to his own time pressures as the Oscars near, Fayyad has been denied a visa to enter the United States to attend the show, a decision that has prompted the documentary community to rally around him. “As a Syrian filmmaker suffering from harsh, impossible visa requirements, during this short time I can do nothing,” he says. “I am a victim of bureaucracy and compact time in the awards season.”

Even as members and awards campaigners have scrambled to adjust to the compressed timetable, the academy itself has had less time than usual to figure out how to mount its all-important Oscars telecast. In years past, the show’s hosts have been announced as early as the previous fall, giving them ample time to prepare. Last year, the academy announced on Dec. 4 that Kevin Hart would be hosting, only to see him drop out days later amid controversy, leaving the telecast to ultimately go on without an emcee for the first time in 30 years.

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This year’s Oscars producers, Lynette Howell Taylor and Stephanie Allain, who came on board in mid-November, have yet to reveal their plans for the show. But  given the limited time remaining for rehearsals and the fact that ratings actually rose for last year’s host-less telecast, it’s likely the show will once again dispense with a traditional single emcee.

Those who have been left feeling frazzled can take comfort in two things: One, the academy has already announced that in 2021 and 2022, the Oscars will return to their traditional late-February spot. And two, as frantic as this year may feel, it’ll all be over that much sooner.

Still, for all the added frenzy, some academy members say their experience has not really changed much at all. “Honestly? I didn’t know the timeline was compressed,” says actress and filmmaker Katie Aselton. “It felt the same: They email, I click, et cetera. Life feels compressed.”

Times staff writers Amy Kaufman and Glenn Whipp contributed to this report.