Fri. Sep 18th, 2020

Oscars: Digging deeper into the new rules and regulations

Yesterday, the Academy revealed that it’s taking swift, if temporary, action as a result of the COVID-19 crisis and pandemic that has put the world on hold. With all film production shut down and movie theaters still closed, the Board of Governors convened for their yearly meeting and came up with some solutions that tweak the eligibility for next year’s Oscars – including allowing streaming only content to compete for Best Picture and other general categories. But there’s more. New rules were set in place regarding the Original Score category and the Sound Mixing and Sound Editing categories are back to being one again. When you drill down into the new campaign regulations you’ll find even more changes. Let’s take a look.

Obviously the biggest and most important change was the announcement that, due to theaters closures, the Academy would allow streaming only content to compete alongside theatrical releases, but just for this year. Current Academy Awards rules (under Rule Two, Eligibility) require that a film be shown in a commercial motion picture theater in Los Angeles County for a theatrical qualifying run of at least seven consecutive days, during which period screenings must occur at least three times daily. Under the new rule, films that had a previously planned theatrical release but are initially made available on a commercial streaming or VOD service may qualify in the Best Picture, general entry and specialty categories for the 93rd Academy Awards. But, films still must meet other criteria. The film must be made available on the secure Academy Screening Room member-only streaming site within 60 days of the film’s streaming or VOD release and must meet all other eligibility requirements that currently exist (including the length of the feature itself).

“The Academy firmly believes there is no greater way to experience the magic of movies than to see them in a theater. Our commitment to that is unchanged and unwavering. Nonetheless, the historically tragic Covid-19 pandemic necessitates this temporary exception to our awards eligibility rules.”

Academy President David Rubin and Academy CEO Dawn Hudson, in a joint statement

Much debate came up after yesterday’s announcement about proving a studio’s intent to screen a film theatrically versus a straight to streaming or On Demand release. Many studios have pulled 2020 releases altogether, moving them to next year, while others have simply moved them from spring and summer to fall and winter. But the Academy is pretty clear: only films that had a previously planned theatrical release are still eligible for Oscar consideration. So don’t expect to see HBO’s Bad Education with Oscar nominee Hugh Jackman and Oscar winner Allison Janney suddenly popping up as a contender. But something like Focus Features’ Promising Young Woman, with Carey Mulligan, would. It had planned on an April 17 release before it was pulled from the schedule indefinitely, as so many films were.

The Academy is also expanding where a film can qualify. Previously, as mentioned above, it needed to be screened at a Los Angeles theater. Now, the Academy has expanded the number of qualifying theaters beyond Los Angeles County to include venues in additional U.S. metropolitan areas: the City of New York; the Bay Area; Chicago, Illinois; Miami, Florida; and Atlanta, Georgia. 

In the Music (Original Score) category, for a score to be eligible, it must comprise a minimum of 60% original music.  Additionally, for sequels and franchise films, a score must have a minimum of 80% new music. This could impact someone like John Williams, the most nominated composer in Oscar history, who has often reused themes in the Star Wars films, for example, yet continued to be eligible. The music branch is a funky bunch though; they’ve often disqualified wholly original compositions because a film features a piece of pre-existing music too familiar or too popular (see: Arrival). Then they’ll swing in the opposite and reward a score like Babel, which features multiple uses of themes from other composers’ works.

The two Sound categories, Sound Mixing and Sound Editing, have been combined into one award for best achievement in Sound that emphasizes the team effort.  The number of Oscar® statuettes remains the same; up to six statuettes may be awarded.  Eligible recipients may include one production sound mixer, two supervising sound editors and three rerecording mixers. Sound used to be a single category from 1929-1982. After a series of special achievement awards for Sound Editing were given in the 1970s and early 1980s, the Sound Editing category was created. While every year, Oscar pundits and cinephiles alike are barraged with having to explain the difference between Sound Mixing and Sound Editing, the two do function as wholly different tasks and this marks the first time a category has been removed from the Oscars since Original Dramatic Score and Original Musical or Comedy Score merged in 1999 to become simply Original Score. Variety’s Jazz Tangcay and Tim Gray reported yesterday that not all sound technicians, like Heather Fink, who worked as a boom operator on Jordan Peele’s Get Out, were happy with this decision. “Film crews get so little recognition as it is,” she said. “Brilliant minds like Tom Varga’s team on ‘Birdman’ or Stuart Wilson on ‘1917’ conceived of new methods of location sound recording to accommodate the unique challenges of those films.”

The ever-changing International Feature Film category (formerly known as Foreign Language Film) will now allow all eligible Academy members to participate in the preliminary round of voting.  For the first time, film submissions will be made available through the Academy Screening Room streaming platform to those members who opt-in.  These members of the International Feature Film Preliminary Voting committee must meet a minimum viewing requirement in order to be eligible to vote in the category. Last year, the winner of the International Feature Film – South Korea’s Parasite – became the first non-English language film to win the Best Picture Oscar. No changes or amendments have been made to the eligibility or submission process, which is still one per country and chosen by that country’s selection committee.

Some of the bigger changes that might have got unnoticed come from the campaign rules and regulations section.

As part of the Academy’s sustainability effort, the 93rd Awards season will be the final year DVD screeners will be allowed to be distributed; these mailings will be discontinued starting in 2021 for the 94th Academy Awards.  Access to the Academy Screening Room will continue to be made available for all eligible releases.  The distribution of physical music CDs, screenplays and hardcopy mailings, including but not limited to paper invites and screening schedules, will also be discontinued next year.  Digital links to materials will be permitted. All screeners, DVD or otherwise, will also now be required to include closed captioning.

While those are not a huge swing, the actual promotion of films, and who gets to do it, is going to see a big change that will impact how awards screenings and campaigns will function.

“In an effort to maintain a high degree of fairness and transparency,” said the Academy letter, “it is the Academy’s goal to ensure that the Awards competition is conducted in a fair and ethical manner. The Academy requires that voting members of the Academy make their choices based solely on the artistic and technical merits of the eligible films and achievements.”

While some are run of the mill and old fashioned, like no lobbying for your film over the telephone (which is how 13 Hours sound mixer Greg P. Russell got his Oscar nomination revoked) others will greatly impact the season, which often sees high wattage stars hosting party screenings of films with fancy food and no host bars, in order to lure voters.

Q&A screenings, a staple during awards season, will see some restrictions. Now, Academy members may be invited to a maximum of four screenings of a nominated film preceded or followed by a Q&A. All participants in such Q&A’s other than the moderator must be nominated or have been eligible for nomination.

After nominations are announced, no Academy member may be listed as a “host” of a screening and no Academy member may serve as moderator for a Q&A, except for members directly associated with making the film. At no time, whether before or after nominations, may more than two “hosts” be listed on invitations and such “hosts” must be present at the screening.

Non-screening events will see a big downturn from previous years. Prior to nominations members may not be invited to, and members may not attend, any dinners, lunches or other such events that are intended to promote an eligible film for awards consideration. However, this does not prohibit providing non-excessive food and beverage at the time and place of the screening or inviting members to an event that is unrelated to promoting an eligible film for awards consideration (e.g., a company party or DVD release event).

After nominations are announced, and until the final polls close, film companies are not permitted to invite members to attend any parties, dinners, lunches, or other non-screening events that promote nominated films. However, members may be invited to pre-receptions or after-parties held by film companies at the time and locale of any guild awards or other recognized industry awards event.

If any campaign activity is determined by the Board of Governors to work in opposition to that goal, whether or not anticipated by these regulations, the Board of Governors may take any corrective actions or assess any penalties, including disqualification,that in its discretion it deems necessary to protect the reputation and integrity of the awards process. Furthermore, any Academy member who has authorized, executed or otherwise enabled a campaign activity that is determined by the Board of Governors to have undermined the letter or spirit of these regulations may be subject to suspension of membership or expulsion from the Academy.

All rules and eligibility for the 93rd Academy Awards are subject to change based on national guidelines, state-mandated government orders and Academy-determined best practices. Which means, as the landscape changes we could see some rules revert or even new regulations added or adjusted.

The 93rd Oscars telecast is still scheduled to air Sunday, February 28, 2021, on ABC, with no anticipation of changing the timetable or calendar of eligibility, which is still January 1, 2020 to December 31, 2020. 

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