Double Your Pleasure?

Lost amid the nonstop coverage of everything Michael Jackson these past couple of weeks was the major announcement from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Academy announced that, starting in 2010, it would double the amount of Best Picture nominees from five to ten.

To the degree that people paid attention at all, reaction ranged from indifference to disdain. Film critics wondered how the Academy would find ten films to honor. A New York Times article claimed that people in the movie business were “livid at the prospect of a diminishing of what has been the most hallowed award in all of entertainment.”

The article was correct about one thing: “The move wasn’t about movies because the academy, in spite of its name, is not in the movie business: it is in the television business.” Call it “The Dark Knight effect.” Ratings for the Oscar telecast have plummeted in recent years. There are many possible reasons for this, but one that some adhere to is that the most popular films don’t get nominated for Best Picture and other major categories (never mind that The Return of the King cleaned up at the Oscars a few years ago). This year most analysts predicted that The Dark Knight, both a critical favorite and the 2008 box office champ, would snag a Best Picture nomination. That didn’t happen and, while ratings improved somewhat from 2008, it was still the third-least watched Oscars in the past 40 years. I’m sure many at the Academy believe that ten Best Picture nominees will ensure that more popular films are included and that more people watch the awards ceremony.

Will it work? Frankly, I don’t care. I like a good Oscars show as much as anyone, but I have the quaint, old-fashioned belief that the point of these awards should be to honor cinematic excellence. Sure I’m a little bored during the Best Sound presentation. So what? For many craftsmen whose efforts are critical to their films, Oscar night is their one chance to shine and be recognized. It’s cool that a visual effects person can stand on the same stage as Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. Giving those awards in the back of the auditorium, like the Academy did a few years ago was a travesty. An even greater travesty is the Academy’s recent decision to award the lifetime achievement and humanitarian awards on a separate night. These awards have been some of the emotional highlights of prior years. More importantly, they often are bestowed to luminaries that have never received competitive Oscars, such as Kirk Douglas, Robert Altman, and Sidney Lumet.

While I have had problems with many of the Academy moves, the increased Best Picture nominees are fine with me. Many of the criticisms lack merit. First of all, if we can’t find ten films that are worthy of a Best Picture nomination we should shut down all the theaters and just watch You Tube. Most critics have their own top ten lists. This will be the Academy’s top ten list. As for diluting the value, there were 281 feature films eligible for the 2009 Oscars. Being in the top ten would still be the best four percent. That’s not so bad.

The most exciting aspect of this change is not that more popular films might get nominated, it’s that more worthy films might be included. We don’t have to look far to see how a ten film Best Picture slate might look like. The Academy has traditionally had ten screenplay nominees (five for original, five for adapted). These are just some of the films that, in recent years received a screenplay nomination, but not one for Best Picture:

2009 – Frozen River, In Bruges, WALL-E

2008 – Away From Her, Lars and the Real Girl, The Savages

2007 – Borat, Little Children, Notes on A Scandal, Pan’s Labyrinth, United 93

2006 – The Constant Gardener, The Squid and the Whale

2005 – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Hotel Rwanda, The Incredibles

Not only would all of these films been deserving Best Picture nominees, they would have also brought some much needed diversity. Best Picture nominees have rarely included comedies, sci-fi/fantasies, or animated films. The move to ten films might rectify that problem. You may have also noticed that many on the list were smaller, independent films. The New York Times opines that “who is to say that the academy, granted double the number of slots, will not be inclined to drill deeper into specialized movies rather than cast wider nets that might snare a blockbuster? Sure, if there were 10 nominations last year, WALL-E might have made the cut, but so, too, might Frozen River and The Visitor, two tiny movies with small but fervent followings.” What’s wrong with that?

Including smaller, lesser-known films is likely the exact opposite of what the Academy intended, but I can only be grateful that these movies may garner some much-deserved recognition. Ideally we could have a balance among blockbusters (Up would be a great choice for 2010), “prestige” films, and the smaller efforts.

Of course, we need to see how all of this plays out when the Academy announces the 2010 nominees. But for now, we have cause for optimism. While the Academy may have made this change for all of the wrong reasons, it may be a significant step towards what the Oscars should really be all about: rewarding the best films of the year.

Adam Spector
July 15, 2009

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