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Saturday 8 February 2003

The Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Split:
How It Happened and Why It Was Necessary

by Chris M. Barkley

When I returned home from the big anti-war rally in Washington D.C. the other weekend at 6 a.m., I found the Torcon 3 Progress report stuffed into the mailbox. I admit I felt a bit of pride when I saw the Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form and Short Form on the Hugo Nomination ballot for the very first time.

It has been widely reported that I was the main instigator behind the split, but this is a myth; prominent Los Angeles SF fan and film publicist Jeff Walker originally proposed the spilt at 1998 Hugo Ceremony at Bucconeer. As he accepted the Best Dramatic Presentation (BDP) Hugo for Contact, he lamented that quality television productions such as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 were excluded from that year's ballot in favor of the big budget movies nominated that year (for the record, the other nominees were The Fifth Element, Gattaca, Men in Black and Starship Troopers). In conclusion, he hoped that some sort of remedy for this disparity was in the works.

I had realized that some sort of change in the BDP was inevitable. The number, scope and quality of sf and fantasy motion picture and television productions had been on the upswing since the early ’90s. The Science Fiction Writers of America had already recognized a sea change in the quality of motion pictures and television first; earlier that year, after a hiatus of 24 years (and some fierce internal fighting, it was reported), they re-instituted a Nebula Award for Best Script.

After Bucconeer, NY fan and co-conspirator Lew Wolkoff and I were hard at work all autumn drafting a BDP category split to present at Aussiecon 3 (which he attended and I nervously awaited word from at home). Our proposal, which was an early attempt at a time-based split, was voted down after one of the most highly contentious and heated (and thereby entertaining) WSFS Business Meetings in the history of Worldcons. We picked up a few friends and supporters along the way, and returned at Chicon 2000 with the same proposal. It, along with two other plans, was voted down.

The Chair of the Business Meeting, Donald Eastlake III, sensing that a majority present at the meeting wanted some sort change in the BDP Hugo, proposed that the various groups form a sub-committee to craft a unified amendment to propose at the Millennium Philcon. Lew and I were ably assisted those who volunteered to serve on the sub-committee; Lew, Richard Russell, Sharon Sbarsky, and John Lorenz among many others. I thank them all for their time and efforts in this matter.

During this process, a vocal minority of fans strenuously and vehemently denounced the BDP Split. Some argued that the World Science Fiction Society is a literary organization and should have eliminated BDP from the Hugos long ago; or that the quality of film and TV productions had never been Hugo-worthy to begin with. Other sagely suggested that splitting the category would diminish the value of the award or that fandom should not be giving out another Hugo to people outside "our community" (i.e., to non-SF writers). Why should the WSFS expend any more energy on an award that Hollywood has very little interest in? I admit that for the most part, the film-making community has no idea that Hugos exist. Yet, several who have won have stated that they really appreciated the honor bestowed upon them — among them Rod Serling, George Lucas, Gene Roddenberry, Michael Pillar and Rick Berman, James Cameron and Ang Lee.

When Dean Parisot and Robert Gordon, the director and co-screenwriter of Galaxy Quest, found out at the last moment that they were nominated for a Hugo, they flew to Chicon 2000 on the day of the Hugo ceremony at their own expense. Surprisingly enough, they went home winners over The Matrix, which had been heavily favored. Mr. Gordon surprised everyone in attendance by stating that he not only knew about SF fandom, but he had often dreamed about winning a Hugo as a young fan. He also said that he and other writers who were avid SF fans working in Hollywood had been dismayed to hear rumors that the WSFS was getting rid of the BDP Hugo. He implored the audience not to let this happen because the Hugo was very much appreciated by those who had won it.

At ConJose, actors Sean Austin and Sala Baker were the surprise acceptors for The Fellowship of the Ring. If this keeps up, there’s no telling who may be strolling across the stage in Toronto later this year...

This is the reason Worldcons began a tradition of awarding Hugos to exceptional works of media science fiction and fantasy, starting with The Incredible Shrinking Man in 1958. Even back then, when a good genre presentation on TV or in a theater was as rare as a Balrog’s tooth, our fannish forbearers thought well enough to create an award, not only to honor the work but to encourage better works.

Which brings me to another point I’d like to make clear. It is widely perceived that the BDP split was facilitated for the sole purpose of splitting off TV episodes and big budget movies; it was not. The amendment on the ballot reads as follows:

3.3.x: Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form. Any production in any medium of dramatized science fiction, fantasy, or related subjects that has been publicly presented for the first time in its present dramatic form during the previous calendar year, with a complete running time of more than 90 minutes.

3.3.x: Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form. Any production in any medium of dramatized science fiction, fantasy, or related subjects that has been publicly presented for the first time in its present dramatic form during the previous calendar year, with a complete running time of 90 minutes or less.

3.2.x: The Worldcon Committee shall not consider previews, promotional trailers, commercials, public service announcements, or other extraneous material when determining the length of a work. Running times of dramatic presentations shall be based on their first general release.

3.2.x: The Worldcon Committee may relocate a dramatic presentation work into a more appropriate category if it feels that it is necessary, provided that the length of the work is within the lesser of twenty (20) minutes or twenty percent (20%) of the new category limits.
Note that the wording of the amendment does not explicitly separate movies and television. (In some circumstances, they still would end up competing.) One of the main objectives was to split movies and TV episodes and maintain and (more importantly) encourage more diversity among potential nominees.

The amendment proposed in Philadelphia split the categories at the 120 minute mark. After some debate and compromises, it was amended to 90 minutes, and ratified by a substantial margin. The split was ratified at ConJose, passing the amendment by a 97-26 vote.

Once upon a time, a Jefferson Airplane album, Blows Against the Empire, appeared as a finalist for the Hugo award. Once upon a time, two Firesign Theater albums landed on the ballot. And a Harlan Ellison spoken-word album. And a slide show called “The Caputre”, drawn, authored and narrated by Phil Foglio.

The last non-visual nominee to appear on a Hugo ballot was the 1978 BBC radio version of Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Why? Star Wars happened. Star Trek came back. Alien happened. More Star Wars and many imitators and wannabes followed. Indiana Jones happened. Then The Terminator ambled in with the Back to the Future movies hard on its heels. Big budget films have dominated the BDP Hugo nominations for decades. Only episodes of Babylon 5 and Star Trek: The Next Generation have broken through over the past decade.

No longer.

With ten nominating spots, there’s no reason why the BDP Hugo nominations should not be diversified. I don’t expect this to become a trend this year or possibly even next year. But if the split survives for, say five years or longer (as I fervently hope it does), we will see a return of the spoken word albums, books-on-tape, CD-ROMs, plays and other dramatic forms to the ballot. In the meantime, shows such as Showtime’s Jeremiah, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Enterprise, Farscape and perhaps the late lamented Firefly will have a chance for a Hugo nod.

This year, for example, I plan on nominating The Flaming Lips’ magnificent SF-themed album, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, while mulling whether or not to nominate David Bowie’s latest collection of songs, Heathens. I would have definitely nominated The Firesign Theater’s The Bride of Firesign if I hadn’t just found out that it had been released in 2001.

There are other considerations tied to the BDP split that may prove vital to the survival of fandom. It may raise the profile the awards in the eyes of the general public. The fan base that favor books and literature has been growing "grayer" over the past twenty-five years, causing some concern among fan groups and convention runners. Fans active in throwing conventions, writing and editing fanzines, and maintaining local clubs and activities are retiring, leaving fandom, or dying, with fewer and fewer people being recruited or stepping forward to take their place. At this rate, fandom as we know it will be gone in a decade or two. The Hugos, Worldcons, regional conventions — our history and culture — may soon sink into oblivion if this trend continues.

The Worldcon has never drawn more than 9000 paid attendance, ever. In fact, the average attendance between 1992-2001 was 5066. In the wake of Star Wars, the growth of media fandom (involving TV, movies, anime, tie-in book sales, fan fiction and other sub-fandoms) shows no signs of slowing down. DragonCon, which is considered for the most part a media convention, is the largest SF convention of any type in North America, drawing between 10-20,000 fans a year.

Part of the problem is that for the most part, media fans and literature fans suffer from strained relations. In my first few years in fandom in the late seventies, it was very clear to me that there was an ever widening gulf between groups who were interested in books and those just into the movies and TV shows. As someone with a foot in each camp it often dismayed me to see lit fans look down their noses at, say, Star Wars fans in costume, with the Star Wars fans turned off from their snobbish cousins while in turn being ignorant of the literary influences (Stanley Weinbaum, Leigh Brackett, Edmund Hamilton, E.E. "Doc" Smith) that made Star Wars and Star Trek and a host of movies possible.

I have heard some very fine things about DragonCon and one day (when it and the Worldcon aren’t scheduled on the same weekend) I may attend one. But Worldcons have something that DragonCons have yet to achieve: a rich sense of history, culture and most importantly, the Hugo Awards.

Worldcons should be using their history and awards as selling points to, if not pry fans away from DragonCon, encourage them to attend and support Worldcons. I do not mean to imply that DragonCon is the enemy here; in a perfect world their convention and the Worldcon complement each other. People who attend DragonCon read, but I don’t think the majority of them have ever heard of Poul Anderson, Gordon R. Dickson, Kate Wilhelm, or Damon Knight, much less care about their place in science fiction and fantasy. It is vital that we attract them and gain the attention of the hundreds of thousands of casual fans who may buy a few books each year or are waiting in line for the next Matrix sequel, assuring them that both interests are equally welcome at a World Science Fiction Convention. The BDP split in itself will not solve this problem, but it’s a step in the right direction. It shows that lit fandom is not inflexible or as dogmatic as some media fans think us to be.

And fortunately, the future isn’t entirely bleak. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has kids all over the world excited about reading again. Robert Jordan’s tenth volume of the Wheel of Time has been the number one book atop the New York Times Best Seller list for the past several weeks.

And if some eager youngster is thirsting for something else besides wizardry, there’s David-Glenn Anderson’s Utah based Reading For the Future (, a volunteer organization whose aim is to increase the readership of science fiction, fantasy, and other speculative fiction, especially among the young. They’re experts at introducing kids, young adults and their schoolteachers to Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Clifford D. Simak, L. Sprague de Camp and Andre Norton. If this web link peaks your interest, visit to check out the message board and join the email listserver.

The fandom that I have known and loved for over a quarter century is at a crossroads. We must dispel the notion that we are the insular gatekeepers, but rather are inclusive and innovative fans and writers who support a diversity of opinion. Most importantly, we embrace change, not reject it.

So be daring and innovative with your nominations in all categories. I’ll be waiting in the audience with anxious anticipation along with you at the Hugo Awards ceremony in Toronto later this summer.

Chris M. Barkley was born in Cincinnati, Ohio and attended his first sf convention in the summer of 1976. Since then he has attended well over 100 conventions of various stripes including 18 World Science Fiction Conventions. His various activities have included being the chairman of a convention (Cinclave, 1986), an sf radio radio talk show host (Bad Moon Rising on Cincinnati’s WAIF-FM, 1976-1983), a mainstay of the Media Relations departments of various Worldcons between 1983-1997and a Worldcon Committee member of Chicon 2000. He has also been a frequent contributor to the Hugo-nominated fanzines File 770 and Challenger. He currently lives in Middletown, Ohio.

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