Pete Hammond

Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences President Hawk Koch vigorously defended the Academy’s controversial new system of online voting when we spoke right after the nominations announcement this morning. He said despite the kinks and some complaints from members about difficulty in voting electronically that it actually brought out the biggest voter participation the organization has had. “It’s the first time, yes. But the first time you do anything of course there’s problems. Remember the first time you walked?  Of course there’s problems.  But the truth is we’ve had more people voting for nominations than we’ve ever had. And we had more people in each branch, every single branch had more people voting. So that portends two things. One, the online voting worked and two, everyone was excited about the films this year. They wanted to make sure and vote. And three, the questions about ’oh has everybody had a chance to see all the films?’ Our members saw all the films,” he said breaking with the long held tradition of keeping Academy voter turnout totals secret and not commenting at all on the subject. There had been speculation the Academy’s sometimes-rocky transition into online voting might actually depress voter participation but Koch said that definitely turned out not to be the case according to their internal figures.

Of course the Academy has been under strong scrutiny for the way it has conducted its first foray into the perilous waters of online voting, something every guild and most voting organizations have been doing for the past few years. Because the Academy (which could be a prized target for hackers) has to be overly concerned about security and the threat of having their system infiltrated they devised a “foolproof” system involving the use of codes and passwords and special phone numbers for member verification which confused some members and angered others. Others I spoke with over the course of voting seemed fine with it, so it was a mixed bag. The Academy tried to accommodate everyone and extended the registration period by two weeks after the first Deadline article appeared on November 28, and later changed its rules to automatically send a paper ballot for those who didn’t register online. As more members expressed frustration about being “locked out” of the system the Academy took another unprecedented step and even extended voting by one day to January 4th instead of the original announced date of January 3rd.

Although he wouldn’t divulge exact numbers, and also wouldn’t tell me how many members chose the paper ballot option, he was clearly excited with the results of the first online voting ever, but added no voter, whichever option they choose, will be left behind. “What I can say is we’re never going to jeopardize the integrity of the Oscar ballot. We will make sure that everybody can vote. That’s our primary concern for the finals,” he said. Asked if there will be any tweaks to the online voting system when final ballots go out February 8th Koch was non-committal. “We’re working on that. I don’t know, but we will not jeopardize the integrity of the Oscar ballot,” he said adding he thinks the earlier announcement of the Oscar nominations by two weeks and the earlier voting by ten days over past years has been successful and should result in increased interest in the show itself.

“I wanted it early. First of all DGA, PGA, Writers Guild, everybody has always announced at this time so why can’t the Oscars. I wanted us to be our own , not to listen to a lot of others. And I wanted our members to have time between the nominations and final voting (now six weeks instead of four) to be able to see every movie and make a real judgement call. I also wanted the audience around the world to say ‘hey I want to see all these movies before the Oscars’ and this extra time gives them more time to see the films and get invested in them and have a rooting interest on Oscar night,” he said adding that many of the nominees are already populist hits.

Koch also broke tradition as Academy President by not participating in the actual announcement of the nominees this morning. He said that was purely by design although he will make an appearance on the Oscar show itself. “I wanted to show the world audience who Seth MacFarlane is and how much fun you’re going to have with the show. I am sure they would rather see Seth than me. Quite frankly I would rather see Seth than me. I think Seth and Emma Stone did a great job and I think it foreshadows how much fun you are going to have on the Oscars this year,”  he said although there was some instant reaction on Twitter to the jokey nature of the nominations announcement including some who thought MacFarlane went too far in at least one bit in which he referenced Hitler. It was certainly a different Academy Awards announcement and that is meant to send a signal to the audience that the Oscar show itself will be different this year too.

“We will be announcing a lot of things. A lot of things the audience will know ahead of time because I want people to tune in knowing who’s on the show and what they are doing. There is going to be a lot more entertainment both music, and as you saw with Seth, humor. We think we have found a way to move it along and give ‘em entertainment,” he said.

The Academy has already announced a special tribute to James Bond‘s 50th will be part of the show, but producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron told me this morning it will be very different than what might be expected and that it doesn’t involve bringing the Bond actors together on stage.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.

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