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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Double Down On Oscar

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."


  1. I'm a fan of the decision mainly because I hope I'll be enlightened to see great films I wouldn't be aware of otherwise.

    Part of me knows I'll be seeing "great" films I don't necessarily like as well. This is a small price to pay for the chance of seeing life altering art.

  2. Yeah, I think that the decision to make the change was entirely commercially motivated, but at the same time, I do think it will cast a light on some otherwise overlooked films, even if it is, like, only one more overlooked movie and four that everyone's already seen.

    As a nerdy Oscar trivia geek, it's interesting just because this is one of those big, historic changes, like the first time a film in color was nominated or when they added the Best Animated Film category, that years from now I can look back on and be like "remember when five films were nominated instead of ten, and how weird it was when they randomly increased it to ten?"

    Though it will now be twice as hard for me to meet my self-appointed goal of seeing all the Best Picture nominees before the ceremony...

  3. You guys are such apologists. This is a terrible decision that is simply watering down the field of best pictures and will basically render "Nominated for Best Picture" meaningless.
    I'd like to see what the list of 10Best Picture nominees would have been for last year, considering I didn't find all 5 pictures nominated this year to that great.
    And MAYBE it means more independent films get nominated, but I'm not even sure of that. And if they do, increasing the field to 10 will only make it harder for an indy film to win.
    I don't know, I just feel like the Oscars have a hard enough time finding 5 "Best Picture" quality films to begin with, let alone 10.

  4. Perhaps I am an apologist (and bear in mind, I'm not necessarily endorsing this change, just making the best of it) but then, perhaps, YOU need to adjust your standards of what a best picture is/should be.

    The way I look at it, the five best picture nominees each year represent what the Academy voters believe to be the five best films of that year. Some years, there's five awesome films. Some years there's four crappy ones and one good one. Some years, they all kind of suck. But that's just how it is. Every year's range of quality is different.

    So to me, this change just means we'll be told what the Academy believes the ten best films in a given year are, instead of just five. Sure, 6-10 will probably suffer in quality from 1-5, but of course, we only ever know what #1 is, and are left to our own devices to argue about #2-5/10.

    Ideally, I think what the Academy should do (and bear in mind I have NO understanding of the mechanics behind the Academy nomination process) is set an upper and lower limit on the number of best picture nominees (say, no less than three, no more than ten) as well as a required number of votes for nomination, and then have a variable number of nominees each year. In a year filled with great movies, you might get ten best picture nominees but in a lesser year, maybe only four or five.

    As for a potential list of last years 10 Best Picture nominees, I point you to Roger Eberts list of the 20 Best Films of 2008 (there were so many good movies last year, he believed, that he was unable and unwilling to winnow the list down to just ten, and this doesn't include documentaries):

    The Band's Visit
    Chop Shop
    The Dark Knight
    The Fall
    Frozen River
    Happy Go Lucky
    Iron Man
    Rachel Getting Married
    The Reader
    Revolutionary Road
    Shotgun Stories
    Slumdog Millionaire
    Synecdoche, New York

    I've never even heard of five of those movies, and I've only seen seven of them. And his list excludes one film that actually was nominated for Best Picture last year.

    I don't want to suggest that Ebert's favorites=automatic Oscar worthy-ness, but he's at least one reputable film person who thought there were numerous great movies last year, and I bet the Academy could craft a list of ten "best picture quality" movies from his list.


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