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Oscars Get Desperate: Why Changing the Academy’s Best Picture Rules (Again) Probably Won’t Help

Oscars Get Desperate: Why Changing the Academy's Best Picture Rules (Again) Probably Won't Help

Just two years after dramatically altering tradition by expanding its best-picture lineup from five to 10, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences have thrown another curve ball by voting to allow “between five and 10 nominees in the 2011 Best Picture competition.” That number won’t be announced until the Best Picture nominees themselves are revealed at the January nominations announcement.

Before even considering whether or not this a good idea, this move oozes desperation and further decays Oscar’s reputation. When you’re an 84-year old institution, switching up the rules surrounding your most coveted prize whenever you feel like it is problematic and tacky. If Oscar keeps it up, he’ll start to look more and more like Emmy.

The reason the Oscars always seemed to stand above other award shows is it’s clear an Oscar is the most coveted of the EGOT quartet, but that could change if the Academy keeps messing with its own prestige. What happens if this move doesn’t change anything regarding ratings or general interest? Will there be a category for “best film featuring a vampire” in 2013?

That said, this idea would have been considerably more appealing — perhaps even embraced — if they’d done it two years ago. A forced 10 nominees is too much and dilutes the value of being a best picture nominee (which, frankly, can be questionable to begin with). Now the Academy will determine its top crop in a much more reasonable fashion.

This is basically how they came to this conclusion: Over the last 10 years, the top vote-getting movie received 20.5% of the first-place votes, on average. After “much analysis by Academy officials,” they determined that in order to be nominated, a film should receive, at minimum, 5% of first-place votes. That standard results in a slate of anywhere from five to 10 movies. If this system had been in effect from 2001 to 2008 (before the expansion to a slate of 10), there would have been years that yielded 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 nominees (check out what 2001-2010 might have looked like here).

Personally, I would have been just fine if they’d never left the five-film standard. But if they had to change, this is a fair way to go. The last two years saw “filler” nominees like “The Blind Side” that would (hopefully?) have never made the cut. The change also adds suspense leading up to the announcement of the nominees, which should create good-old-fashioned fun for Oscar prognosticators and good-old-fashioned anxiety for would-be nominees.

But as an attempt to hike ratings: Is that even a likely result? An audience that cares whether there’s five or 10 or eight or six best-picture nominees is all but guaranteed to watch the Oscars, anyway. And it’s dubious as to how it can really alter the race’s suspense once the nominees are announced; last year, there would have been no doubt that “The King’s Speech” was a clear winner even if “Winter’s Bone” and “127 Hours” weren’t in the running.

The audience that the Academy wants seems to care more about what’s nominated then anything else (See: Ratings bumps when “Titanic” and “Lord of the Rings” were in the mix). And more than anything, the Academy — and everyone else, for that matter — cares about the quality of the show itself. This year, the Academy’s poorly chosen hosts and mediocre writing resulted in one of the worst-reviewed and worst-rated broadcasts in 25 years.

So, what’s next? We can expect the Academy to keep experimenting until the ratings improve. A move up from its late February date seems inevitable, in order to dodge awards season fatigue (a move I’m all for, frankly). And who knows what “innovative” hosting decision they’ll come up with next (My recommendation: Swallow your “But he hosted the Emmy and Tony Awards!” pride and sign Neil Patrick Harris for the next decade.)

In the end, who knows if anything will see the Oscars return to its ratings heyday; I’m not sure it’s even possible. With interest on the wane for more than a decade, its status could be more a sign of the times than a need for any number of best picture nominees.

Check out Anne Thompson’s take on the news here.

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