12 Years Might Be Finished, but Academy’s Rep Is Also In Trouble

Last night Awards Daily‘s Sasha Stone posted a report about a Vanity Fair-sponsored Oscar bloggers panel that happened yesterday afternoon, and the “bombshell” of that event, says Stone, came when veteran publicist Peggy Siegel, who’s been staging toney Oscar-related gatherings in Manhattan for many years and who kibbitzes with Academy members and journalists constantly, “said that voters she spoke with (and remember, she goes to EVERYTHING) could not even bring themselves to watch 12 Years a Slave. You have to watch it, she would urge them. But they would hold up their hands and say ‘I can’t!'”


(l. to. r.) VF host/moderator Mike Hogan, Indiewire‘s Anne Thompson, Deadline‘s Pete Hammond, Awards Daily‘s Sasha Stone, Vulture‘s Kyle Buchanan.

(l. to.r.) Peggy Siegel, Vanity Fair contributor Krysta Smith, Fandango‘s Dave Karger.

To me that sounds like bad news for Slave and the Fox Searchlight team, but what do I know?

I’ll tell you what I know. For decades members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have made themselves infamous for succumbing to soft, tepid emotional impulses in their voting for Oscar winners, but lately it’s gotten worse. It seemed for a while that they were getting braver by giving Best Picture Oscars to The Hurt Locker and No Country For Old Men, but the last three years have been crushing with Best Picture honors going to The King’s Speech, The Artist and Argo. And now (I hate to say it but it’s probably true) effing Gravity. Academy folk like what they like and don’t give a damn about what history will say or what people outside the narrow little AMPAS culture think about their mediocre aesthetic standards.

The problem with the Academy can be boiled down to the “deadwood” members — the over-the-hill crowd that doesn’t work that much (if at all) and whose tastes are conservative and smug and myopic. These people, I’m convinced, have been refusing all along to get past themselves and bow down and show 12 Years A Slave the respect and praise it absolutely deserves. Steve McQueen and John Ridley‘s film is honest and searing and, yes, at times difficult to watch, but it’s brilliantly sculpted and superbly acted and profoundly affecting if you let it in. But the old farts have been stand-offish if not hostile from the get-go. Dollars to donuts they’ve all voted for Gravity or American Hustle or even Philomena, but…well, nobody knows anything but my guess is that Siegel’s comment probably speaks volumes.

Has the old fart contingent tipped the general Academy vote toward Gravity winning Best Picture? Almost certainly. I’m sorry to say this and I’d love to be proved wrong, but I think the train has left the station and 12 Years A Slave isn’t on it, at least in terms of the top prize.

Slave believers aren’t throwing in the towel. The Hollywood Reporter‘s award-season columnist Scott Feinberg is predicting a 12 Years A Slave Best Picture win. Following Siegel’s remark Deadline‘s Pete Hammond said he wasn’t sure what film was going to prevail and that “he could detect no strong buzz for one film or the other but that it really was split between Gravity, American Hustle and 12 Years,” Stone writes, and that “the below-the-line people he talked to were all voting for Hustle.” Co-panelist Kyle Buchanan, Vulture‘s L.A.-based reporter and award-season analyst, said he was sticking to his early prediction (made during last September’s Toronto Film Festival) that Slave will take it. Co-panelists Dave Karger and Anne Thompson also said they’re sticking with Slave. But I don’t know, man. I don’t know. Siegel’s quote had a ring of finality.

Stone obviously found Siegel’s remark bracing. The word “bombshell” is not tossed about carelessly in her column. Siegel, she explained, “doesn’t have an immediate stake in the game at this point” and “was sharing her experience with those people and this movie.”

If I had attended the Vanity Fair discussion (which I had been invited to), I would have raised my hand at one point and said the following: “We’re all emotionally invested in the Oscars…we’ve been watching the show since we were kids…but the Academy is an insulated culture, notoriously so, and the world outside has long regarded the Academy and their soft, lowest-common-denominator Oscar choices as not only tedious and parochial but often deserving of scorn. The internet conversation has amplified and intensified this feeling of derision, certainly among the under-45 audience over the last decade or so, and I really don’t think the Academy can hope to sustain a respectable reputation with this much disapproval and disrespect among journalists and New Yorkers and Londoners and the young and the disaffected and fringe-y.”

You can’t put up the walls and turn off your computers and plug your ears and refuse to listen. We live in a level-playing-field world now. The Oscars are still “the Oscars”, but how will they fare culturally 10 or 20 years hence? I listen to cyber-noise every damn day and I’m telling you the Academy has largely been discredited as an elite society of smug fuddy-duddies. And yet when you listen to Academy members, when you chat with them at parties and screenings, they doen’t seem to be aware of this. They think everything is fine. They don’t get it.

For people who really care about and believe in the artistic potential of movies, to hear that many Academy members have refused to even watch 12 Years A Slave, as Peggy Siegel claimed yesterday…that is truly pathetic. The only way to save the Academy, the only way to keep it connected to the changing culture out there, is to reduce the impact of the votes of the ‘deadwood’ Academy members with some kind of weighted system based on their work activity. Things can’t go on the way they are now. If change doesn’t happen in ten years the Academy will matter a lot less than it does today. It 20 years it will be a shadow of its former self.

Do something about the deadwood…or die.