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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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The Oscar race: Are those 10 nominations going to waste?

January 25, 2010 |  4:26 pm

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Here's the dirty little secret about the motion picture academy's controversial scheme to expand this year's best picture nominees from five to 10 movies. It isn't going to make the slightest bit of difference in the Oscar race.

Coming on the heels of some surprise picks over the weekend -- including a win for "The Hurt Locker" from the Producers Guild of America and a win for "Inglourious Basterds" from the Screen Actors Guild -- the big favorites in the shoot-out for the all-important Academy Award for best picture look exactly the same as they did before "Avatar," the industry's astounding box-office phenomenon, won the top award at the Golden Globes a week ago.

Basterds When the nominations for best picture are announced next Tuesday, 10 movies will get to briefly bask in the spotlight, but for most of them it will be a Pyrrhic victory at best. As virtually every breathless Oscar prognosticator will tell you, there are only four movies that have even a remote chance of winning best picture, and all four of them -- "Avatar," "The Hurt Locker," "Inglourious Basterds" and "Up in the Air" -- would've made the final cut anyway, regardless of whether the academy had five or 10 best picture nominees this year.

The votes are already in -- academy ballots were due Saturday -- but even without any official count, it's safe to say that all the other films in the discussion are glorified also-rans. It's a four-film race. Period. It will hardly be a surprise to see the final 10 nominations include such worthy contenders as "Precious," "Up," "An Education," "A Serious Man" and perhaps one or two studio blockbusters, but they are just along for the ride. Next week we'll be hearing a host of nominees tell the press how delighted they are to be honored by their peers while their distributors dig into their pockets and pony up for a new round of Oscar ads, but it will all be for show -- none of the films outside of the Fab Four is going anywhere.

So, in essence, it didn't matter whether we had five or 10 nominees this year, since four of the five nominees were already set in stone. But does this mean it was a terrible idea for the academy to expand its best picture list, as many veteran academy members have privately groused to me and other members of the press? I put the question to academy President Tom Sherak, who was one of the biggest advocates for the move (along with Larry Mark and Bill Condon, who produced the Oscar telecast last year). 

"I know it's the oldest cliche in the world but, by and large, if people are talking about you, it's always a good thing," says Sherak, who -- never at a loss for a quip -- excepted from this rule the time his former company, Revolution Pictures, was trying to get moviegoers to see "Gigli." "The move to expand the nominees has created an enormous amount of buzz about the Oscars and the movies that are in contention. A lot of people think it's a good idea, a lot of people don't, but regardless of the pros and cons, it's ignited a debate that been good for the Oscars."

To hear Sherak tell it, the move was long overdue. "The Oscars are a brand, and if there's a perception that the brand was starting to age, we needed to do something and change with the times," he explains. "If you become stagnant, you become a dinosaur. So we tried to do a few things -- and some of them you won't even see until you watch the broadcast -- that were designed to help the Oscars become more a part of today's world."

That sounds all well and good, but let's face it -- nearly all of those changes, starting with the expansion to 10 nominees, were done to reverse the Academy Awards' prolonged ratings slide, which has seen the broadcast go from being must-see TV to simply the last (and often the snooziest) event of a ve-r-r-r-ry long award season. So the real test of the academy's expansion strategy will come from whether this year's broadcast enjoys a healthy ratings boost.

Unfortunately, Jim Cameron threw a monkey wrench into that plan. Why? Keep reading:

With a box-office blitzkrieg like "Avatar" in the middle of the best picture race, it's almost inevitable that the Oscars will enjoy a hefty ratings boost, just as the broadcast did the year Cameron's smash hit "Titanic" was running the table. One of the key reasons why the Oscars' ratings have dipped so precipitously is that the movies being honored have had little resonance in Middle America. It's hard to score big ratings when most of the winners of your top categories would be equally at home at the Independent Spirit Awards.

So while it's almost a slam dunk that the Oscar's ratings will go up this year, the lion's share of the credit will go to "Avatar," not the presence of five additional best picture nominees. In essence, this means that the academy probably needs to continue the experiment for a couple more years to see how it plays out in different circumstances. (Luckily, Cameron only makes a movie once every 10 years, so he won't be around to muck up the experiment for a while.)

But if you're looking for an intriguing tip-off as to whether the strategy could have worked this year, take a close peek at how many Hollywood blockbusters end up making the academy's top 10 best picture list next week. I can pretty much guarantee that "Up" will be there, but I'm not sure it counts as an additional blockbuster contender, since the film would still have enjoyed substantial face time on the broadcast as the odds-on favorite in the animated feature race. But what about "The Hangover"? What about "The Blind Side"? What about "Star Trek"? Will any of those $100-million-plus hits be among the best picture finalists?

If more than one of them makes the list, then I'd say the expansion scheme is off to a promising start, as long as we acknowledge that its main reason for existing is to bring more mainstream pictures into the Oscar mix. If only one of those pictures -- or God forbid, none of 'em -- makes the final cut, then we'll have to throw up our hands and admit that the academy is as elitist as ever: Even when given 10 chances, the voters still insisted on picking tiny gems over well-crafted behemoths.

It could institute a new round of hand-wringing. Or it could force everyone to acknowledge the obvious: When it comes to the Oscars, what counts most with voters is artistic aspiration, not the loud applause of moviegoers in multiplexes across America.

Photo, top: Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana in "Avatar." Credit: from 20th Century Fox

Photo: Brad Pitt in "Inglourious Basterds." Credit: Francois Duhamel / The Weinstein Co.

PREVIOUSLY: OSCAR EXPANSION: DOES THIS 'FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION' ADS FOR MICHAEL BAY?

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