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Academy Governors: Let’s Go Back to Five Best Picture Nominees

Academy Governors: Let's Go Back to Five Best Picture Nominees

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Board of Governors met Tuesday to debate various things, including the ideal number of Best Picture Oscar nominees. When they meet June 23 we will know if they stick with from five to ten or return to just five.

The thing to remember is that six years ago, ten was a number that was designed to please Oscar broadcaster ABC by boosting Oscar ratings with more films appealing to a larger global demographic. It was about getting people to tune into an Oscars promoting not only the best art films (“The Hurt Locker,” “The Artist,” “Birdman”) but Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” which did not make the Top Five, and Sandra Bullock vehicle, “The Blind Side,” which slipped into the Top Ten. Truth is, movies like “Titanic” (1998 ratings topper) and “The Lord of the Rings” lure viewers, not Oscar hosts. 

Having ten best picture Oscar candidates, the brainchild of 2009 Oscar show co-producers Bill Condon and Laurence Mark, was considered an experiment as the Academy tried to come up with ways to make the Oscar telecast more relevant. “Why not try something different?” said AMPAS president Tom Sherak at the time. “The group believes in doing ten. The thinking is to go one year at a time. The Board of Governors agreed to try it again this year and see what happens with a different group of pictures. Then we’ll go back to the Board and see if it’s worth doing a third year. It’s something the Board will decide. The voters are getting used to it.”

The thinking was to allow more popular films–as well as docs, foreign and animated features–to enter the Oscar fray so that viewers would have more reason to tune in. “The biggest concern is we didn’t want to take away what it meant to be one of the five,” says Sherak. “We did not want to dilute the nominations. We did a lot of research and we found that to the public we weren’t diluting it. We’re giving them a wider range of what’s out there. It does become important to the ratings. And 90% of the revenue to run the Academy comes from that show.” (As well as mounting the Oscar telecast, the Academy runs an archive library and ongoing screenings and exhibitions throughout the year.)

What happened? The nominees stretched to include more small-scale indie films like the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” and “Whiplash.” So the Academy tweaked the rules, asking voters to rank five films in the nominating process that, depending on how the preferential voting panned out, would yield between five and ten films. So far there have been nine Best Picture slots and this year, just eight. 
Clearly, the Academy has been twisting itself into a pretzel to make these voting rules work, accompanied by arcane explanations of the nomination and Best Picture voting process that require a math degree to understand. That’s one reason to keep it simple and go back to five. Let people vote for the five movies they like best, both for nominations and for the Oscar. The experiment has failed. It has not served its designated function of boosting ratings: this year’s broadcast was down more than 15 percent from last year, the lowest since 2009. 

The studios have stopped making, for the most part, the movies that used to be in Oscar contention. Prestige dramas are now the purview of specialty distributors. Hollywood studio big budget A-list movies are what used to be B-list fare. Which is why so many comic book blockbusters are relegated to the tech categories that celebrate the best sets, costumes and spectacle cinematography. The closest this year’s Oscar race came to an old-fashioned Hollywood Oscar movie was Wes Anderson’s elegantly designed European valentine, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which won four Oscars. 

One argument against the extended list is that it devalues a nomination. Those in favor of more Best Picture candidates argue that more attention for films that might not get it otherwise is a good thing. And that without this year’s box office smash “American Sniper” in the race, the ratings would have been even worse.

What do you think? 

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