A Controversial Suggestion: Eliminate Academy Screeners

As Tom Sherak, the President of The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences, said this week in an email to all 6,000+ members of the Academy, "The 2011 Oscar season has officially begun." Since I have been a member of the Academy since 1971, when a film that I produced, Lady Sings The Blues, was nominated for five Oscars, I have been engaged in monitoring and commenting on this august organization and its activities, occasionally to the irritation of the 43-member governing board. I expressed my opposition to the fact that the Annual Governor's Awards, now in its third year, sells tickets to members, the studios and agencies, at a high cost to the untelevised event, an expense most long-time AMPAS members can't or won't justify. Let the studios, agencies and friends-of-honorees pay the tariff, but hold a lottery to select member to attend the awards. That's fair and equitable. When Roger Corman was honored, I laughingly told my Academy friends that the notoriously frugal Roger would never in a million years pay that price for tickets to an event honoring him.

I have also expressed my opinion here on Huffington that, Yes, Oprah deserved an award this year, when criticism was rampant about her selection. I have never personally met Mr. Sherak, a long-time distribution executive whom I am told is a very good guy. I noted today in the trades that he and his wife have just sold a family sitcom to ABC (which telecasts the Academy Awards). It's based upon their family situation, when their daughter and her three kids moved back into the family home. Funny, wonderful idea. I would watch that.

I know the Oscar season has begun because my mail is loaded with envelopes containing "screeners," DVDs of movies which were released this year and are eligible for Oscars. Every day the doorbell rings and the FedEx man asks me to sign for another envelope bearing one or more films. Ten minutes ago I received Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar, which I haven't seen, and a film called Gnomeo & Juliet, which I have never even heard of. No joke. I gather it's a Disney animated film with an original song they want me to hear. A word abut these 'screeners.' With its paranoid fear of them being copied, counterfeited or unlawfully exhibited, severe warnings accompany the discs. "They are specially marked so they can be tracked back to the recipient," and such. "Don't give them to anyone, friends or families, or they can get into the wrong hands." (Sure! Fat chance.) It must cost a fortune for the big and little studios and distributors to send them out. And now the other guilds and organizations have gotten on the bandwagon. Madness.

"For 83 years the Academy Awards have represented the best of the best in the world of movies and the art of filmmaking." As Mr. Sherak pointed out, in their purist form the Awards allow the members of the Academy to celebrate the year's cinematic achievements, bestowing the industry's highest honor upon peers, colleagues, and friends whom they believe most deserving. So, as I said, the studios are bombarding us with these screeners. And yes, it is so convenient to get into bed in the evening and view them in the comfort and convenience of home. The only thing is ... I have a sense of discomfort in doing so. I may be alone in feeling this, but if I were the filmmaker in question I might be upset and irritated at the idea that members of the Academy were seeing my movie on a tiny TV screen instead of on the big theatrical screen for which it was intended. (I doubt that many members of the Academy have one of those huge home video HD screens which we see in Best Buy.) I know that when my film was in contention, I was upset that it was even screening on an airplane. (In those days, no screeners were sent out.)

This weekend I went to the Academy to see the new George Cooney film, The Descendants, and I told my date that I couldn't imagine seeing this drama on a small screen. With its breathtaking vistas of a virgin Hawaiian landscape, it was part of the overall design which the filmmaker, Alexander Payne, wanted me to experience in full splendor. I must note that the studios are very accommodating this year in setting up screenings of the major (and minor) contenders in many venues and screening rooms around town and in other cities around the world. I will see Tintin at the DGA theatre this weekend, and Hugo also. What I won't do is go to any of the plethora of "Question-and-Answer" social events suddenly proliferating, now that the Academy has loosened its rules about such events, allowing the cocktail-and-crudities parties to entice voters to socialize with the filmmakers. They can go rampant until the official nominations are announced on January 24th, when such activities must cease. Again I reiterate, judge the movies, not the parties.

The best way to see any film is as intended, on a pristine movie theatre screen in a darkened house. So let me throw out a rather controversial suggestion ... let us stop sending screeners to members. Just stop cold. If the members cannot see the film on a regular movie screen, then they should not be able to vote for it. Period. My ex said last night that I should take into consideration that the membership is older, consists of many widows and family members of the deceased who can't get out ... but they are not eligible to vote anyway. I applaud the fact that the Academy, under new head Dawn Hudson, is making a determined effort to bring new blood, younger industry members, into the fold. Yes, we must expand our portals. Here and abroad. They can get out to theaters to see the contenders, so let them.

I go again to today's email: "An Academy Award cannot be bought -- it must be earned, and we are responsible for protecting not only the legitimacy of the awards but also the manner in which the nominees are chosen...we owe it to our fellow Academy members to see their work as it was meant to be be seen."

So I put forth my suggestion ... no more screeners. I know it won't work for the upcoming 84th Oscar season but let's aim for a new era beginning with the 85th Oscar celebration. Integrity, honesty, vision, clarity. That's what the Academy stands for ... I think.

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