Awards season has finally come to its final stretch. Technically, Academy Awards campaigning has reached its final few hours since the voting officially closes today at 5pm PT before Sunday March 2nd’s telecast. I know it’s one of those things people say every year, but this year really seems unique in terms of how close of a race we’ve been witnessing in the still open Best Picture category. Many pundits are predicting a split, picture going to 12 Years A Slave and director going to Alfonso Cuarón for Gravity.
While many talk about either clear frontrunners (such as Cate Blanchett for Best Actress), or close races (such as Lupita Nyong’o or Jennifer Lawrence for Best Supporting Actress) in major categories, I have been wondering about the relatively “smaller” races, in Short Films and Foreign Language categories, mainly because of the voting changes that have taken effect in the last couple of years. This is the second year all AMPAS members are invited to vote on Best Documentary, Best Animated and Live Action Short categories (members started getting screeners for these last year and are no longer required to attend official screenings). And this is also the very first year all members are invited to vote on Foreign Language and Best Documentary Short categories. I wondered how Academy members react to these changes, and whether their voting has been impacted in a way that might change the results, favoring the more popular titles among a pool of nominees that members didn’t necessarily watch in their entirety on screeners. Then I thought, what better person is there to ask than a voting Academy member. I am grateful that someone agreed to talk to me not only about these questions, but also more about this year and voting in general.
I am of course going to keep their identity a secret. When Daily Beast did an interview with a voting member, he/she was named “Pat”. I’ll call my source “Sam”. Because, why not?
Thank you, Sam, for agreeing to talk to me. My first question is regarding the Shorts, and Foreign categories. Until recently, members who’d like to vote on these had to attend Academy-hosted screenings. Now every member gets screeners. How did this change your voting? Do you see the films, or vote based on popular word?
I know what they [AMPAS] were trying to do: making sure that those categories were a little less exclusive. The problem is that, you don’t really know when you get a screener if people are really going to watch it. Foreign films and docs are not easy to watch like the more commercial movies. You have to really pay attention. And I think it will definitely have an effect on the winners. It’s good in the sense that you get thousands of votes. But when you had to attend a screening, at least you knew that people saw the film in its entirety. I was talking to a voter about Foreign Film, who said (s)he put the Italian movie down eventhough (s)he didn't see it entirely. So you don’t really know who’s going to watch.
The ballot is still valid if you skip a category, right?
Yes. Do I find that people skip categories? I think some people do. And I think some people will vote if they haven’t seen all the films, based on what they read, who they know. Sometimes you ask, “Should I vote for something that’s politically correct or vote for something that I really like even if it may not be the best movie?” It’s really a tough call. That said, I think New York voters are really different than California voters.
I find that the people I’m talking to [in New York] liked a certain film in Foreign Language. They really REALLY like The Great Beauty. I was talking to somebody who does awards consulting based in LA and found that people out in California really seem to love The Hunt.
And to me, there’s no comparison. The Hunt is a really good movie. But it’s not breaking new ground. I think Great Beauty is a fantastic movie. Brings back the way people first saw Fellini back in the 60s. The Great Beauty to me is another category by itself but a lot people didn’t really respond to it in California.
Have you seen the shorts? Are you voting?
I’ve seen them all. And I didn’t see them on screener. I went to the screening.
I was slightly underwhelmed by the animated crop. But thought live action was really strong this year.
Oh I thought the animation was also very strong this year. The doc shorts were OK. The live action shorts were very good.
Just Before Losing Everything was great.
That was actually my favorite one. And some people I spoke to really like Helium. It was a nice movie, but it didn’t have the same effect on me as the French film (Just Before Losing Everything). It was a little too much. But I was surprised, talking to people in the theater. By the way, among the New York Academy members, there is a core group that actually goes to screenings. And you see each other twice a week and become friends. It’s actually amazing how so few people in the NY branch come to screenings. Although I would say with the shorts, there were 50 members in the screening room. Considering they all got their screeners and made it out to see it in bad weather, it is a very good number.
Do you think Academy should go back to the requirement that you have to attend a screening?
I think if they’re going to give screeners out to members, it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to make you go to the official screening first and then send a screener to those people who have attended, so they can see it again if they choose to. But I don’t know if they’d ever do that. Once you cross that line, you can’t take it away.
It seems like there is a scandal every year that grows in size online. This year, the Woody Allen story resurfaced. People questioned Wolf of Wall Street’s ethics, Dallas Buyers Club’s accuracy... Do these “scandals” have an effect on the way you vote?
Personally, I don’t care. Look, if I don’t like someone, it doesn’t make a difference. If I really hate a person, but if he gives a really great performance, I am not going to not vote for him. It’s not what you’re voting for. For Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, people were saying, “You can’t vote for the movie by a child molester.” The word was out, the gloves came off and everybody got involved in it. I personally don’t care.
How do you feel about everyone voting for everything? I am mostly talking about the technical categories. Do you think everyone should instead vote on their own branch only (like nominations) and then Best Picture?
Not really. Well, the more you go to the movies and the more you vote, the more familiar you get with all the categories. And you watch movies more carefully. I am on the Academy screenings committee. And sometimes we select movies that can be really good in some of these technical categories. Like special effects, or production design.
So what you’re saying is that voters start to watch with different eyes.
Yeah. We sometimes talk about these. “Wasn’t that music horrible? It didn’t belong in the film” or “It wasn’t the music that was bad, it was just its place in the film.” SO we get into these discussions. I don’t know how many of the members read all the trades when they’re doing their awards editions, but I actually like reading below-the-line articles. I know enough people who are interested in all that. So when we have Q&As, we say, “Why do we always have the actor? We’ve seen him in a thousand talk shows. Can’t we get the costume designer, for instance?” But it’s very hard to get to those people. Because they are usually working on something else by that time.
I am starting to think this “anywhere’s between 5 to 10 best picture nominees” is proving to be a pointless exercise. This is the third year in a row that we end up with 9 nominees.
I didn’t vote for 9 (voted for 10). And I like the 5 still. I really do. I also think we should just pick ONE winner. I like the idea that, after the nominations come out, people just pick one movie as their favorite film. And that’s that.
So no preferential ranking.
I would just say put your favorite movie down and that’s it. Make a decision without thinking “if I vote for this, more people will vote for that.” You just need to vote with your heart, on what works for you. And that’s basically what happens when I vote. I vote on a movie that I really really really like.
Passion comes before anything else.
Absolutely. I worked on Academy movies at studios. And when I got my ballot, sometimes I personally didn’t think [what I was working on] was the best movie. So I didn’t vote for it.
What is the one upset you want to see on Oscar night?
Well, my favorite movie is Her. If that wins [Best Picture], it would make me so happy. But it doesn’t have a shot although I think it should win. Everybody I talk to is all over the map for this one. It could be 12 Years A Slave. It could be Gravity. It could be American Hustle. Although -- I don’t know about American Hustle.
Everybody is calling a split this year for Director/Picture.
Gravity is all about the direction. And I think Cuarón deserves it of all the directors. The movie is only a success because of him.
Only one more week to go.
I can’t wait for it to be over.