Does Oscar Have a Growing Problem?

oscar.jpgThe announcement that the Academy Awards will double the number of Best Picture nominees this year has certainly generated buzz, although it has mostly led to jokes about the length of the awards telecast. (And while we’re at it: What’s the deal with airline peanuts?) The Film Experience’s Nathaniel Rogers summarizes the reactions and remains doubtful that the move will broaden the appeal of the nominees:

“Mostly the expanded competitive field will just mean more slots for the type of movies Oscar likes to nominate — i.e., serious dramas, message movies, period pieces, war films, and films that smell of prestige in some way (lauded source material, famous auteurs, you know the type).”

I’m skeptical of his skepticism — at least looking backward.

Because I’m environmentally friendly, I’ll recycle something I produced earlier this year to make the discussion a little less abstract (though no less speculative):

“Here is a list of movies — the Best Picture nominees (in bold), other serious contenders, and a few never-weres — ranked by their combined scores from Rotten Tomatoes (listed first) and Metacritic:

WALL•E (96, 93: 189)
Slumdog Millionaire (95, 86: 181)
The Wrestler (98, 81: 179)
Milk (93, 84: 177)
The Dark Knight (94, 82: 176)
Iron Man (93, 79: 172)
Frost/Nixon (91, 80: 171)
Rachel Getting Married (87, 82: 169)
Hellboy II: The Golden Army (88, 78: 166)
Kung Fu Panda (88, 73: 161)
Ghost Town (83, 72: 155)
Tropic Thunder (83, 71: 154)
In Bruges (81, 67: 148)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (72, 70: 142)
The Reader (60, 58: 118)

So let’s say there were 10 nominees last year. Using this list and some common sense as a guide, three additional movies look like slam-dunk nominees: WALL•E, The Wrestler, and The Dark Knight. For the last two slots, I could imagine any combination of Rachel Getting Married, Tropic Thunder, Doubt, Revolutionary Road, and a choose-your-own-Clint-Eastwood, with Iron Man and In Bruges having an outside shot.

But the final two nominees wouldn’t really matter. And while a common refrain has been that there aren’t 10 “great” movies in any given year — which is utter bullshit, by the way — it also wouldn’t matter if the field looked a little weak on the back side. We don’t eliminate the Nationals and Royals from Major League Baseball just because they suck and have no chance of winning.

(To compete a few thoughts before moving on: [1] If you can’t find 10 movies you love in a year, you’re not seeing enough; [2] There can be a dearth of great Oscar-y movies in a given year, but so what?; [3] The addition of WALL•E, The Wrestler, and The Dark Knight would strengthen last year’s field by just about any measure — critical prestige, popularity, passion.)

The interesting dynamic happens after the nomination process. Regardless of the top-to-bottom quality of the nominees, within the field expansion is sure to be a game-changer — a movie that re-shapes the race. I look at last year’s actual nominees and imagine a lot of people unthinkingly voting for Slumdog by default; it seems an obvious gut-level choice, vibrant and energetic and exotic. (I’m sure most Oscar voters are conscientious, but the results kinda speak for themselves.)

Yet with an expanded field, they would likely have had to weigh Slumdog against WALL•E and The Dark Knight, and that’s a tougher choice, with a lot more deliberation and second-guessing. Put simply: I know a lot of people who like Millionaire, but I know a lot more people who love WALL•E or The Dark Knight.

In the end, I don’t believe an expanded field would have denied Slumdog its crown, but I’m certain it would have added a measure of suspense to the proceedings. Almost by definition, none of these five additional nominees has much hope of winning, but they can certainly play the role of spoiler, siphoning votes from other nominees and potentially changing the outcome.

And 10 Best Picture nominations would have given the movie-going public a much greater rooting interest. WALL•E and The Dark Knight, after all, together earned more than double the domestic gross of the five actual nominees combined.

So unless this new process results in the nominations of five more small-audience “prestige” pictures that got mediocre reviews, it can only be a good thing.

Poll

Do you like or dislike the idea of expanding the number of Best Picture Oscar nominees from five to 10?

Voting is now closed for this poll, but here are the results:

Total votes: 21

i like your optimism but that list of movies omits several titles that could have beat something like THE WRESTLER (which totally deserved it) such as CHANGELING which is more typically an Oscar film (even though it isn’t half as good).

i fear the top ten list that oscar comes up with will look just like the lists that the BFCA come up with in trying to predict the Oscar 5. and that’s basically typical oscar stuff with, last year, two nearly universally beloved blockbusters (but that doesn’t happen every year)

I don’t disagree that most of the new slots will get eaten up by Oscar bait, and smelly Oscar bait at that.

But if the new process allows for one or several “nearly universally beloved blockbusters,” I think that’s enough to justify the expansion. It changes the game significantly, and for the better, in my opinion.

To address the specific issue you raised (the omission of some Oscar-bait titles):

The list was originally put together to show that there were many movies with better reviews than Benjamin Button and The Reader, and to ponder what a “better” field might look like.

Changeling (61, 63: 124), given its pedigree, could certainly have scored a nomination in an expanded field. But including it didn’t suit my original purpose.

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