As they post items, sometimes multiple entries per day leading up to the Feb. 25 Oscar telecast, they open the process up to a worldwide audience of movie fans. They also make the seemingly mysterious, secretive motives of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' 5,830 voting members more transparent. To a point.
But the sites also serve as a source or tip sheet for movie-industry readers -- especially the marketing and publicity people -- to decide which films to support for Oscar nominations and how to go about it. And one way to go about it is placing ads on the sites. Another is to grant the sites access to stars for interviews, thus making them real players.
If it sounds a little like the long, media-paved, hall-of-mirrors-lined road to a presidential election, that's what it indeed has become: "I cover Oscars very much as I'd cover a political race," says David Carr, who writes the two-year-old The Carpetbagger blog for The New York Times. Last year, he predicted Crash by polling 12 members of the Academy -- contacts he had developed -- and hearing several say, "I know Brokeback Mountain is going to win but I'm voting for Crash."
But while the sites try to use their assets -- unlimited space, a power to quickly spread information via links, and an ability to mix traditional journalism with blog-oriented personal opinion -- to get inside the Oscars, they also try to interest those on the outside in the Internet as a reading medium. And the Oscars are a perfect subject for that goal.
"There is no other comparable awards show, except the Olympics," says Anne Thompson, deputy film editor for the trade journal Hollywood Reporter. Her Reporter-sponsored Risky Biz Blog, accessible to the general public, often deals with Oscar speculation and she participates in the Gurus o' Gold poll on a separate site, David Poland's Movie City News.
"It's a horse race, it's a drama, it has a certain patina of class, and it's extremely glamorous and beautiful," she says.
As Sasha Stone, who runs the independent OscarWatch blog puts it, "Winning an Oscar is such a big deal. It always starts an obit that someone won an Oscar or was Oscar-nominated."
It's also entertainment, a refuge from the comparably imperfect storm of current world affairs, especially the Iraq War.
"As consumers live and breathe entertainment, the interest only grows," says Scott Robson, executive producer of The Envelope, a Los Angeles Times Web site devoted to entertainment awards, especially the Oscars. "I don't think by pulling the curtain back on the process you're disillusioning anyone. It's making it more interesting."
The Envelope is in its second year, after The Times acquired an existing entertainment-awards site called Gold Derby to acquire the services of Tom O'Neil, a longtime Oscar aficionado and author of Movie Awards. In addition to news, interviews and features, The Envelope publishes the popular Buzzmeter, in which "respected entertainment pundits ... monitor who's hot and who's not in key awards races." The Departed, Martin Scorsese, Forest Whitaker and Helen Mirren finished first in their respective categories for the week of Feb. 4. The Times this year has tried a weekly print edition of The Envelope.
Among other sites sponsored by print media are Toronto Star's Oscarology, Los Angeles Daily News' On the Red Carpet, Vanity Fair's Little Gold Men and Chicago Tribune's Pop Machine. Among the independent ones besides OscarWatch and Movie City News -- which has an active Awards Watch section -- are Hollywood Elsewhere, OscarCentral and InContention.
Last week the Academy ordered OscarWatch to cease using that trademarked named after Stone this year started to sell ads and turn a profit. Her site has been in existence since 1999.
"We love fan blogs and people talking, but once they become commercial ventures we're required to protect our copyright," says John Pavlik, the Academy's spokesman.
The sites hold their own against each other. According to a recent Alexa.com Web site traffic ranking, OscarWatch had 20 visits per 1 million Internet users, Movie City News 15 and The Envelope 5.5. The Envelope had 5 pages viewed per visit, OscarWatch 4.1 and Movie City News 1.2.
But they also have a cumulative impact as a community of Oscar prognosticators, reporters and critics. It can be a quarrelsome community as they comment and criticize one another -- Hollywood Elsewhere's Jeffrey Wells recently stirred controversy by actively campaigning against Eddie Murphy for Best Supporting Actor.
"The (online) media narrow the field," Movie City News' Poland says. "The Oscar game is a big-picture game. Online is a small picture. But we have an influence on the traditional (print) media." During Oscar season, he says, his site attracts 1 million unique visitors per week.
Their taste is fairly edgy, too, perhaps from keeping up with the film-festival circuit where "quality" movies with Oscar aspirations tend to debut. While it might be coincidental, their growth does seem to mirror the increasing edginess of Oscar nominations, where an old-fashioned Hollywood entertainment like Dreamgirls can be shunned as Best Picture material while the Spanish-language Pan's Labyrinth, which mixes dark fantasy with a violent Spanish Civil War tale, can nab six nominations (but not a Best Picture one).
Prevailing wisdom has been that while the sites might help shape Oscar campaigns and media attention, Academy voters are too busy or too old to read them. If anything, they follow Oscar campaigns by seeing traditional "for your consideration" ads in trade publications.
But Mark Urman, head of US theatrical operations for independent distributor ThinkFilm, isn't so sure. This year he shepherded a campaign to net Ryan Gosling a Best Actor nomination for Half Nelson, a critically praised small film about a drug-addicted teacher that grossed but $2.7 million theatrically. Urman is also an Academy member.
"A large percent of the Academy membership is not in a position to see the trade press on a daily basis," he says. "What they do see are computers, and on location they definitely have access to computers. Basically they (the awards sites) move quickly, responding to every augury, and they take a film's temperature so often they affect the temperature."
Very early, he said, after Half Nelson's debut at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, the sites started considering Gosling's performance as Oscar-worthy. "But their question was how a small company like ThinkFilm can go up against the studios." One answer to that, Urman said, was to advertise on the sites to show them he could. "And we became a viable candidate."
As for the future, OscarWatch's Stone wonders if the increased Internet coverage will prompt the Academy to make the Oscar process ever more transparent. Half jokingly, she suggests public debates by producers of the five Best Picture nominees on why they should win. But she doubts it.
"They're elusive, like a girl you can't get a date with in high school," she says. "You can't crack their code. They're as much a mystery to me now as they were."
The Academy's Pavlik says he expects the organization to add a blog to its primarily explanatory Oscars site -- it even experimented last year with a show-producer's blog that didn't really work. But he doubted such a site would ever prognosticate, tout or have a Buzzmeter.
"Our attitude about that is buzz be damned, it's the achievement we're trying to honor," he says. "And the achievement has already happened. We want people to see that and focus on what's on the screen rather than what people think about what's on the screen." ©