For an 11-year period between 1933 and 1943, the Academy honored 10 nominees each year in the coveted “Best Picture” category. This list was cut in half beginning in ’44 and remained so until last year when they unexpectedly announced that they would once again inflate the principle group to a list of 10.
The reasons were obvious. Viewership of their annual award ceremony had been steadily declining for years and but for an odd spike here or there those numbers had been moving in the wrong direction for two decades. By expanding the Best Picture list they were more than doubling the chances that a random potential viewer would be a big fan of one of the nominees.
I say “more than” doubled because as anyone who follows the Oscars know, it is only a rare year in which the most popular film with audiences is also the most popular with critics and academy types. In 2008 The Dark Knight probably had more fans than Slumdog Millionaire, There Will be Blood, Milk, Frost/Nixon and the 6-hour Brad Pitt Movie combined. Batman’s exclusion from any significant award category doubtless cost the televised broadcast a huge percentage of potential eyeballs.
The solution is practical if not elegant. By expanding the list to 10, they are able include the populist crap that people have actually seen. They still don’t stand a snowball’s chance of winning but you can’t know for sure until you’ve watched all the way to the end of their long, dry, witless presentation.
If you’d asked me this time last year (or had I been blogging this time last year since you didn’t exactly ask me this time), I’d have told you I disagreed with the decision. Usually, artistic decisions that are made to make the masses happy are bad ones and the slate of nominees for 2009 supported this trend. The point was to find a way to include pin-head-plot movies like Avatar, which probably wouldn’t have made it on the list of five. But they didn’t just expand to 6. They had to find 4 more movies to force fit in.
This left nonsense like District 9, Up and The Blind Side standing side by side with works of art the likes of Inglorious Basterds, Hurt Locker and Precious. It seemed to me that while they may succeed at expanding their potential audience, they did so by diluting the very meaning of being a “Best Picture Nominee”. What did that claim really mean if they were also willing to give it to Avatar? I mean, the picture that was fun, granted, but also felt at times like a two-hour dramatic segue between two levels in a video game.
And Up? I’ll allow that it was a heart-warming movie with surprisingly human underpinnings, but Best Picture? And District 9?! This is the kind of decision that justifies the existence of the interrobang. A Serious Man was alright, but it still seemed like a stretch. It was as though the academy members were desperately reaching for something to fill the slot and someone uttered “Coen Brothers do anything this year?”
I was quite vociferous in my opposition to this move leading up to the ceremonies. Some attempted to allay my fears that the Oscars were turning into the Golden Globes by pointing out that it wasn’t as though something like District 9 or Avatar was actually going to win. Heck, they don’t even let good science fiction like 2001 and Blade Runner win Best Picture awards. As long as the winner is a deserving film, they would argue, what does it matter if a few crappy flicks are left on the pile?
This offered only a shred of comfort, as I am reminded that there are plenty of legendary films whose only real acclaim was to be nominated for this prestigious award. Raging Bull, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Maltese Falcon, Shawshank Redemption, The Pride of the Yankees, 12 Angry Men, Apocalypse Now and Citizen-freaking-Kane are now being categorized alongside District 9 and Up in the Air.
So I swallowed back my trepidation and I watched the presentations. They were funnier than they’d been in a decade or more and here and there the right people won the right award. As we’d all predicted, none of the “by popular demand” movies won Best Picture and they finally got around to giving a Best Director Oscar to somebody without a penis. All in all the good outweighed the bad. I still disagreed with the decision, but it certainly hadn’t altered the alignment of the planets or caused a wormhole to open.
Now fast forward to 2011. The list of nominees is curiously lacking an “Avatar”. Sure, Inception is there to fill the populist role, but that was actually a really good movie with some challenging originality and a brilliant script. It probably would have made the short list of 5 nominees.
In addition to that, there are three legitimate contenders to win. True Grit, The King’s Speech and Black Swan are all deserving titles according to the reviewers in the know. Toy Story 3 is clearly one that would not have made the cut 2 years ago, but it was still a spectacularly fun movie that is more deserving of the recognition than the token cartoon movie of a year ago.
Social Network was a surprisingly engaging and memorable movie and likely would have been left off of a five-nominee list. The same might be true of The Fighter and 127 Hours. While I doubt that any of these movies have a chance of winning the award, the nominations have often been used quite adeptly to draw attention to fine films that were largely overlooked in theaters. This is a worthwhile goal and one that probably would not have been possible this year without the expanded field.
I’m perfectly willing to admit it when I’m wrong and I was vocally and consistently incorrect on this one. The first year they did it was somewhat bumbling but few things go smoothly right out of the gate. The fact is that Hollywood simply didn’t have time to catch up with the Academy. This year they knew that there would be 10 Best Picture nominees so the major studios actually made more good movies.
Now, before I hang too large a point on that premise, I should admit that there have always been fluctuations in the overall quality of films from year to year. There are good years when movies like Pulp Fiction, Shawshank Redemption and Quiz Show all lose and there are bad years when Crash takes best picture. It’s hard to draw a conclusion from a sample size of two, but I think the plethora of quality and cerebral movies this year is a strong indicator that increasing the list just made Hollywood work harder.
Consider that it is commonplace for a studio to hold a film until the following year is there is a similar film in contention for Best Picture. The execs tend to know when they have a seriously good movie in their hands and they take care to release it late in the year so that it will still be fresh on Academy voters’ minds when it comes time to pick the winner.
By allowing so many more nominees it takes a lot of the pressure off of these studios to hold on to a brilliant movie until it has weaker Oscar competition. It also forces the studios to include a larger swath of artistic films amidst their typical drivel. If 2010 was any indicator, one can expect to see a general increase in quality pictures as Hollywood gets used to the larger list of nominees.
Now if we could only find a way to get them to bring Billy Crystal back to host it…