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Awards Season: When Motion Picture Crafts Get Their Due

November 23, 2009 05:24 | By
Academy changes affecting the crafts

Academy changes affecting the crafts

The curtain is rising on another awards season, where recognition of individual achievement in filmmaking takes place against the backdrop of Hollywood ritual and hoopla. It’s also the time of year when the craft professionals who work behind the scenes get their time in the spotlight, honored both by their peers at special guild events and by the industry at large at the Oscars.

“Being nominated is always a tension-producing experience but it’s also fun because you get to be the belle of the ball,” says production designer Jeannine Oppewall who has been nominated for the best art direction Oscar four times for films including Seabiscuit and The Good Shepherd and won an award from the Art Directors Guild for Catch Me If You Can. “And for those of us who work in the trenches making movies, we seldom get treated as if we were the belles of the ball.”

This season, the awards dynamic could be different. The reason—the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to double the number of films that will be nominated for the best picture Oscar, from five to 10. Behind the expansion is an attempt by the Academy to broaden, not just the number, but the kinds of pictures that will be up for consideration, so that more box office successes and studio pictures with more audience appeal can wind up in the mix.

“Having 10 Best Picture nominees is going to allow Academy voters to recognize and include some of the fantastic movies that often show up in the other Oscar categories, but have been squeezed out of the race for the top prize,” former AMPAS president Sid Gannis said when he made the announcement in June.

Last year, for example, The Dark Knight, the global blockbuster and critical favorite didn’t get nominated as a Best Picture nominee, though it did get nods in seven craft categories, (and a best supporting Oscar for the late Heath Ledger).

“By opening up the field for best picture Oscar so widely, it’s always possible that this could have an impact on voting for other categories from best director, to best editing,” says Tony Angelotti, whose company works on Oscar campaigns for Universal Pictures. “And, if Academy members take their jobs seriously, they are going to have to see a lot more movies than they have in the past to come up with 10 nominations.” Or as one producer puts it, “The effect may be mainly psychological, but Academy members will have more movies on the brain.”

Coming up with 10 worthy films for best picture may open the way for more comedies, action and special effects-laden movies, animated films and documentaries to make the Best Picture nominee list. For Academy members simply seeing enough films to come up with a top 10 will be challenging.

“You’ve definitely got to see a lot more movies to pick a best 10 to nominate, and I’m not sure how many will make that effort or instead add some films that make an end-of-the-year critics list,” says director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond, who won an Oscar for his work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1978 and was nominated three other times. “I never vote on films I haven’t seen—I only vote for movies I’ve seen and liked.”

Only in the Best Picture category do all Academy members submit nominations. Otherwise, members of separate Academy branches decide the nominees in their field of expertise. The cinematography branch comes up with the five nominees for best cinematography, and then all 6,000 Academy members vote to pick the ultimate winners.

The Oscar ceremony has over the years developed a split personality. The Academy Award is the ultimate industry accolade for individual achievement. But the show itself is also a television broadcast designed to gather maximum ratings from viewers around the globe. To make the telecast more entertaining and less long-winded, thank-you speeches have been shortened and other parts truncated. Starting at the next Academy Awards, elder statesmen Oscars like the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award will be handed out at a ceremony that’s not part of the broadcast.

There’s also been some discussion over the years about carving out the craft Oscars as a separate event, like the Emmys have done with their below-the-line awards. “It will never happen because there are too many craft members of the Academy,” says Angelotti. “But the producers of the show each year can decide how the awards are given out.”

At the 81st Academy Awards last February, some of the craft Oscars were handed out in groups. One trio presentation was for art direction, costume design and makeup. Another was for best special effects, sound design and sound mixing. The Oscar for best cinematography was handed out separately. Though the overall aim was to be more concise, the sequence attempted to be informative with a demonstration of how movies are made. And top stars like Will Smith, Daniel Craig and Natalie Portman were presenters. It remains to be seen how the craft awards will be treated at next year’s Oscars.