Who's the loser in the latest Oscar best picture shake-up?
After spending two years promoting its effort to enlarge the best picture field to 10 nominees, the motion picture academy finally has acknowledged the obvious--there aren't ever, ever, never-ever going to be 10 serious best picture nominees. The new system, announced Tuesday night, requires that a film receive at least 5% of the first place votes in the first round of balloting to receive a best picture nomination.
The academy, which usually treats its voting records with CIA-like secrecy, actually admitted that a study it commissioned had determined that if the new 5% rule had been in effect between 2001 and 2008, there would never have been a year when 10 films made the cutoff. Some years there would have been as few as five nominees; other years six, seven, eight or nine. But never 10.
Let's face it. The best picture race is a wonderful marketing tool for films that need the extra Oscar boost to draw adult audiences into the theaters. Studios spend like drunken sailors all fall to nab a best picture nomination, because it often results in a significant box-office bump for an art-house or specialty division picture that otherwise wouldn't be on most moviegoers' radar screens. But having covered the Oscars for way too many years, I can assure you that the vast majority of the best picture nominees are also-rans from the moment the nominations are made public.
The 2011 Oscars were a two-movie horse race between "The King's Speech" and "The Social Network"
from the start. There were only two films in serious contention in 2010--"The Hurt Locker" vs. "Avatar." In 2009, there wasn't a real race at all--"Slumdog Millionaire" was an obvious winner months before the nominations were even announced. "No Country for Old Men" was a consensus pick early on, with only a smattering of competition from "Juno." In 2007, "The Departed" pulled away from the field early on. There was a lively horse race in 2006, but it was always between two films--"Crash" and "Brokeback Mountain." Ditto for 2005, which had a two-movie rivalry--"Million Dollar Baby" vs. "The Aviator."
I could go on, but you get the point. By the time the academy announces its best picture nominees, the field is already pretty well separated into one or two serious contenders--and a host of films that are happy just to hear their names called out, knowing that having that "best picture nominee" label on their ads will give them some juice with reluctant moviegoers. So what the academy has done won't really have any major impact on the best picture race, simply on the number of films that might benefit from the Oscar pedigree.
Who does it hurt the most? No one knows for sure, but I'd guess that the smaller indie films are the ones most likely to be left out, since they are the ones that have the biggest uphill struggle to persuade Oscar voters to watch their screeners. The academy wouldn't reveal how many films received more than 5% of first-place best picture votes in 2011 or 2010, the two years that have featured ten nominees. But under the new rule, I'd bet that there might have only been eight 2011 best picture nominees, with "127 Hours" and "Winter's Bone" not making the cut. In 2010, there might have only been seven nominees, with "An Education," "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" and "District 9" not receiving enough first-place votes.
Even if it turned out that some of the big, successful studio films were left out--like "The Blind Side" or "Inception"--it would hardly be a disaster, since those films didn't need the best picture stamp of approval anyway, having already made their money in the marketplace long before the nominations were announced. If anyone tells you this will hurt a deserving film, please advise them to take a chill pill. It's simply the academy's way of thinning out the pack, pushing aside a couple of also-rans and helping its members focus on the real priority in Oscar life, which is reading all of the breathless media speculation about who's up and who's down.
Come Feb. 26, when someone opens the best picture envelope, there will still only be one winner's name inside.
-- Patrick Goldstein
Photo: James Franco, left, with Anne Hathaway, the co-hosts of the 83rd Academy Awards. Credit: Bob D'Amico/ABC