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Will Twice the Nods Mean Half the Relevance?

by David Cornelius

In a stunning surprise, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences announced yesterday it will be expanding its Best Picture category to ten nominees.

What a lousy idea. Of all the knee-jerk reactionary “I can’t believe we nominated ‘The Reader’ instead of ‘Wall-E’ or ‘Dark Knight’” fixes, this is both stupid and extremely desperate. And short-sighted: instead of just admitting that 2008 was an off year for the awards (and film in general), or that the past few years overall have seen a widening gap between what wins big at the box office and what’s considered quality filmmaking (the expected exceptions notwithstanding), this change seems to imply “popular” fare has never been nominated for Best Pic, and this is the golden fix for that.

There’s also the notion that this could open the door for more foreign and animated films - meaning that after “Wall-E,” they’ve given up on hoping the voters will be smart enough on their own. And they can spin it like crazy: since PricewaterhouseCoopers doesn’t reveal vote counts, the Academy can pretend a tenth-place cartoon voted by enough younger members and ignored by the rest is respected by the entire membership. This instead of just waiting for the membership to evolve its thinking on its own (or, more honestly, for older viewers to just die off).

Worse, it seems the Academy has ratings on its mind above all else. A box office hit in the running, even if odds were low of a win, would pull in viewers that have skipped out on years where most of the big nominees weren’t well known to the average moviegoer. Which is to say, they’d rather let a mediocre picture go into the history books as a winner with just eleven percent of the vote than have one year where a half million less people tuned in.

Then again, you could smell the change coming. The most recent Oscar show bent over backwards to pander. Remember all those montages that bundled the year’s movies by genre? The intent was for the show to mention the hits that didn’t get nominated (so the Academy could say to the viewers, “hey! we remember those movies, too!”), but we wound up with an Oscarcast that inexplicably celebrated “Space Chimps” and “The Love Guru” in a failed attempt to seem “with it.” There was also the precedent-breaking decision to allow studios to advertise during the show, which, when mixed with the show-ending collection of clips for upcoming releases, turned the awards into a greasy sales pitch. Oh, and the “let’s have five presenters for each acting category yet rush through the tech awards with apathy” vibe translated easily as “look! familiar faces! please, please watch!!!”

And now this. From Variety’s report on the news: “[Academy president Sid] Ganis said this year’s Oscarcast producers Bill Condon and Laurence Mark suggested to the committee that it would be great if ’the spectrum was wider’ for best-pic contenders.” Which translates loosely as “they told me they could’ve brought in more viewers had they been given more chances to do more Batman jokes for the yokels and the fanboys.”

(Why weren’t the same complaints made the year before, when the top nominees performed even more poorly at the box office than the 2008 batch? We have one year where a couple popular favorites don’t make the cut, and instead of a simple admission of a slip-up off year, we need a massive overhaul?)

Ganis is hoping to use 1939 - a year with ten nominees all considered classics - as a reasoning why a return to ten would be a good thing. But 1939 was a heck of a fluke; all other “near-perfect” years for the awards have been in years of five nominees.

And of all the years to implement this plan, they pick now? The year’s half over, and how many solid contenders do we have? Just one, really: “Up.” Unless the fall is hiding nine great flicks (which, at the moment, doesn’t seem likely, while many of the movies I’m hoping will be great don’t look like Oscar material), the initial year for this ten-nod experiment could become an absolute embarrassment.

By the way, I completely see the hypocrisy in hating this choice yet being a critic who releases top ten (not five) lists every year yet complaining about the Academy essentially wanting to do the same. But such lists allow for expansion (I even got for ten more runners-up, as many writers do) that celebrate the year as a whole, while Academy tradition suggests each category is honed to a specific shortlist. Sure, it never works out to actually be the year’s five best, but that’s the intent. And a ten count waters down that intent.

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originally posted: 06/25/09 16:45:06
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