Surprise announcements are few and far between in these days of 24/7 news, paparazzi and Twitter, but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (aka the group that hands out the Oscars) manged today to announce a fairly significant change to the format of the Academy Awards that wasn't leaked beforehand. Starting with the telecast in 2010 (for films released in 2009) the Academy will now be nominating ten films for best picture instead of five.
This marks a return to a practice that hasn't been seen since 1943, when the number of nominees was trimmed from ten to the five, the standard until now (in 1934 and 1935 there were twelve best picture nominees, and in 1931/32 there were eight, with ten in all other years).
Of course, the initial thought regarding the motivation behind this change is that the studios want more best picture nominees, because such nominations open up new marketing opportunities for their films and help increase their box office take. In this article by Roger Ebert, noted Hollywood-insider blogger Nikki Finke firmly states this to be the case. Another "well-placed industry insider" in that article refutes this notion, basically saying that the studios aren't smart enough to come up with the idea, let alone successfully lobby the Academy to adopt it.
Instead, believes this insider, the change is just one more in many changes made to the Academy Awards telecasts of late (including cutting the musical numbers and altering the order in which awards are presented) intended to help boost flagging ratings of the broadcasts.
It is widely considered a fact by many that had "The Dark Knight" been nominated for Best Picture last year (and many speculated it had a good chance of doing so, firmly believing that "The Reader" edged it into "sixth place" at the last minute) more people would have watched the show as a result and ratings would have been better. The thinking is the more popular a film nominated, the greater the ratings of the Oscar telecast. Careful research (by which I mean my vague recollections and no actual research) suggests there is a correlation between popular (i.e. high-grossing) films being nominated and an increase in ratings for the corresponding ceremony. The 1997 Oscars (in which "Titanic" was nominated and won) was one of the highest rated on record, and the ratings for the 2003 Oscars (in which "Return of the King" won) were the highest since then.
So either way, whether this change was brought about by movie studios looking to boost their films' revenues with a "best picture nominee" label or by the Academy itself in an attempt to increase the ratings of its broadcasts, the change seems to be business-motivated and a further challenge to the integrity of the awards, which are, remember, supposed to theoretically award the best in American film each year, regardless of commercial considerations (and yes, we all know that doesn't always happen in reality).
Of course, it IS possible that the Academy made this change simply to bring attention to and honor a larger number of deserving films, both art house Indies overlooked by mainstream audiences and high-grossing, audience-pleasing films with some greater artistic merit (like "The Dark Knight" last year). Which was, in not so many words, the explanation given by Academy president Sid Ganis when the official change was announced. If that explanation seems naive and unlikely in the face of the commercial motivations, well, that's the world we live in. But it is worth considering.
Commercially motivated or not, it is important to remember that the Academy consists of thousands of members, from all walks of Hollywood life (editors, writers, actors, directors, producers, costume designers, fx technicians, etc.). I don't know how changes like this are decided upon by the Academy (if every member has the right to vote on such a change, if some kind of "Academy Ruling Council" makes these kinds of changes independent of the entire voting body, or if Sid Ganis has the dictatorial power to make sweeping changes as his heart desires) but most Academy members, I imagine, could care less about the ratings success of the Oscar broadcast or the box office returns of the nominated films. If such a change truly is commercially motivated (as, in some part, at least, it most likely is) it doesn't automatically mean the integrity of the awards are damaged beyond repair. The Academy is large and diverse, and in the end, while this change may have the desired commercial impact on both box office grosses and television ratings, it will probably just allow the voters to spread the accolades to a greater and (hopefully) more diverse number of films. As Roger Ebert said, "taste does remain a factor."