Oscar’s 10 Best Picture nominees: recognizing diversity or exercise in futility?
Oscar telecasts have over the decades become the butt of jokes for running long … overly, unusually, excessively long, in some cases. The last couple of shows have been considerably briefer, but that could change when Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin hand out the statuette for 2009’s Best Picture winner on March 7 next year. You see the difference this time around is that Martin and Baldwin will be previewing 10 nominees, instead of the usual five.
Will Oscar fans go for it? How will the additional nominees sit with Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) voters? How will this affect the odds and box office returns for pictures up for the award?
A lot rides on the outcome of those highly strategic studio campaigns to get a film nominated, much less to the after-parties with an Oscar in hand. And depending on how the move to a 10-nominee Best Picture award is received, there will either be joy or grousing from the other nine “it was an honor just to be nominated” also-rans.
After all, OSCAR isn’t NASCAR and this isn’t a “points” race. You get as much for finishing second as you do for coming in fifth, er, tenth … nothing.
Keep in mind this isn’t a new thing … just new to modern times. AMPAS President Sid Ganis said earlier this year he thinks 10 nominees actually allows the balloting process to get back in touch with Oscar’s “earlier roots.” In only its fifth ceremony, in 1932, the Oscars already had more than five Best Picture nominees. That number ballooned to 12 in 1935, but settled back to 10 until downsizing to just five after 1942.
Here’s what the proponents’ logic seems to be: widen the choices so that more “populist” pictures have a better shot and you’ll get more ratings. During the scramble for last year’s Best Picture Oscar, fan websites and entertainment pundits made a big push to get nominations for “The Dark Knight” and “Wall•E.” Both were critically acclaimed box-office hits, and had they stood a chance last Feb. 22, their fans might have tuned in and helped raise the ratings from 2008’s lowest-rated show ever. But, alas, neither film made the final five, and even with Hugh Jackman’s wildly entertaining opening number and banter, the 2009 show ended up being the third-lowest-rated in Oscar history.
So, does that mean that if either or both pictures had been in contention it would have translated into Oscar viewers? Not necessarily.
Even though lots of critics and showbiz types assess their picks on a 10-nominee scale, Oscar’s new policy could backfire big time. After all, say industry analysts, while it may make some negligible difference in terms of “artistic credibility,” there’s absolutely no guarantee that 10 Best Picture finalists will bring any more eyeballs to an Oscar telecast. Further, if the awards show reverts back to getting longer, that could spell serious trouble for a property that’s already severely ratings challenged.
Of course, the Academy isn’t the only major player in the 10-nominee drama. The Producers Guild of America (PGA), long seen as a incredibly accurate predictor of Oscar nominees and winners, announced to its membership in September that it’s also increasing its Best Picture spread from five to 10 films. PGA president Marshall Herskovitz, himself a former exec producer of TV’s “thirtysomething” and features such as “Shakespeare in Love” and “Blood Diamond,” said in a statement that the change “support[s] our colleagues at the Academy, but also … better represents the unprecedented diversity of films being produced today.”
Don’t get me wrong … I’m all for diversity, and in a better year that quote might have resonated with entertainment journalists and the viewing public. But with the Academy now sporting the same number of Best Picture slots as the Golden Globes, Broadcast Critics’ awards, National Board of Review and AFI Awards, the PGA was left as the only major group that could still have held its ground on being choosy about its nominees. That could have been significant in a few ways.
First, with a batting average of more than 70%, the PGA’s Best Picture winner is often a good predictor of Oscar’s. Not to mention it may be a stretch to find 10 worthy films from this year’s average-at-best slate of offerings, and that adding five more is just needlessly overcrowding an already low-in-the-water box office lifeboat.
Further, if the Directors and Screen Actors guilds follow suit and add more nominees to their ballots, speculation is the 10-nominee pattern could end up being institutionalized, at least for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, in the short term, studio release patterns will have to change radically in order to open more films in New York and Los Angeles if they intend to make the Academy’s Oscar eligibility cutoff in December.
Interestingly, one segment of the industry that may not be as affected by the 10-nominee issue are the theaters. Oh, sure, some big chain multiplexes may have to weather some jockeying for space at the box office, but many smaller indie cinemas say they frankly don’t care if there are 10 nominees or two. The studios can try to tighten the screws all they like, but it’s an exhibitors market out there.
Even the historically recession-proof movie business is catching a breeze off the current economic hurricane. Right now it’s theater owners who get to say “cut, print” when it comes to booking films they think will sell the most tickets, from studios that will offer the best deal to run them.
Mr. Ganis is welcome to play the nostalgia card, but if you ask me it’s a pretty safe bet NO ONE is going to mistake 2009 for 1939, when “Gone With the Wind,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “The Wizard of Oz, “Stagecoach” and “Wuthering Heights” were five of the 10 nominees during the 1940 Oscar ceremony.
So far, only a couple of low-budget pics such as the inspirational inner-city flick “Precious” and the Middle East war drama “The Hurt Locker” have garnered Best Picture worthy critical praise, but may not carry much wide-release momentum. And we’ll have to see whether higher-profile holiday releases such as Golden Globe Best Pic nominees “Up in the Air,” an airline industry dramedy from “Juno” helmer Jason Reitman starring George Clooney, the Nancy Meyers-directed comedy “It’s Complicated” with Meryl Streep, and James Cameron’s Semper Fi-meets-sci-fi effects bonanza “Avatar” can also win similar nominations from Oscar voters.
Bottom line: what all this could end up meaning is simply that the winner will beat out a larger spread of lesser nominees. In any event, we’ll see who made the top 10 when Oscar’s 2009 nominations are announced on Feb. 2. At that point, the Academy — and other award-wielding groups — may want to consider turning out better product, even if it means having to nominate less of it come awards time.
William Wiggins is a freelance entertainment journalist from Los Angeles.