Oscar expansion: Does this mean 'For Your Consideration' ads for Michael Bay?
I never thought I'd be caught dead using the words "bold" and "innovative" in the same sentence with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but that's what any Oscar fan would have to call the academy's eye-popping decision, announced today, to expand its best picture nominee list from five to 10 pictures.
All I can say is "Bravo!" If nothing else, the ingenious idea should instantly broaden the appeal of the Oscar telecast -- which has seen a big chunk of its audience disappear in recent years -- by allowing a host of popular commercial films to compete with the vanishing array of specialty division and indie productions that have traditionally ruled the roost at Oscar time.
Yet, for traditionalists, the move also provides a link to the bygone years of Oscardom, since it was actually commonplace in the 1930s and early 1940s to give out 10 best picture nominees. Is inflation a bad thing? It certainly wasn't in banner years like 1939 and 1941, when you could argue that any one of the 10 nominees -- classic films all -- would've been an outstanding choice.
So why did the academy, which has generally been loath to make any radical change, take such decisive action? I'd love to think that the academy elite were responding to critics like myself, who've been saying for years that the Oscars, as I once put it, "are a cobwebby relic from a bygone media age when Big Events earned Big Audiences." But I don't flatter myself. Though its members include the best and brightest of Hollywood insiders, the academy is the world's most insular institution. When it makes changes, the momentum comes from the inside, not from pesky outsiders.
That's what was so laughable about the reaction in the blogosphere, especially from the Web's new millionairess, Nikki Finke, who called the move a "terrible idea," claiming that it was "the direct result of lobbying by major studios" who used outgoing academy chief Sid Ganis to help "the studios impose their agenda." As it turned out, I had a chat with one of those nefarious studio chiefs today. He begged to differ, saying that the academy was so resistant to outside pressure that "I probably have a better chance of getting Barack Obama to listen to my special pleadings than I would with the academy. They've always kept us at arm's length."
That's not to say that the studios won't benefit in some ways from having a larger field of nominees. I asked several Oscar experts the following question: If the field had been expanded last year, what five movies would've made the cut, in addition to the five official 2009 nominees? They all agreed that the top three beneficiaries would've been "Wall-E," "The Dark Knight" and "Doubt," spreading the rest of their votes among such candidates as "Iron Man," "Gran Torino," "Revolutionary Road" and "Changeling."
Judging by those possible picks, a 10-nominee list would have included considerably more studio films, along with one or two (at most) specialty division films. With indies and specialty divisions making fewer movies each year, it seems likely that a Big Ten nominee list will feature even more popular studio films. But that's the whole idea. The entire thrust of expanding the playing field is to find a way to better engage a younger audience, which would help drive Oscar ratings up instead of sliding farther down. It could even encourage the nomination of a smart comedy, a deserving genre that the academy has willfully ignored in recent years.
Interestingly, the driving force behind this decision wasn't the academy board (who eventually approved it), but the academy's Awards Committee, which is made up of a dozen or so industry veterans, tellingly with a sizable contingent of marketing and publicity figures, including Marvin Levy, Cheryl Boone Isaacs and Ganis, once a publicist himself. (Other Awards Committee members include the producer Hawk Koch, the writer-director Phil Alden Robinson and the veteran cinematographer Owen Roizman.) It was this committee that pushed forward the change, believing the academy had to take dramatic action to save its bacon with ABC, which like all networks has less patience than ever with shows whose ratings are in steady decline. (Of course, the revenues from the show don't all go to waste. They help to fund a wide assortment of good-works endeavors from the academy.)
I instantly see several good things coming out of the decision. With votes being spread across 10 nominees, on the night of the show there should be more suspense about which film will be the winner (unlike this year, when "Slumdog Millionaire's" victory was a foregone conclusion). With 10 nominees to showcase on the telecast, the academy will ultimately have to make a long-overdue move and jettison some of the dreary technical categories that are largely an excuse for millions of Americans to take a bathroom break -- or hit the fast-forward on their TiVos. The fewer awards, the better. The Grammys usually only give out nine or 10 on-camera awards, and put on a far more entertaining show.
Anyone who's read my thoughts on the subject knows that I believe the media's obsession with the Oscars is out of control, trivializing what was once an award for real artistry. But in theory, having 10 movies in the best picture race will be a boon to my newspaper and Variety, since the studios will now see the need to support 10 movies instead of five with an onslaught of "For Your Consideration" ads. Studios are cutting back on expenses, but once you land an Oscar nomination, especially with a film with top stars and filmmaking talent, it's almost impossible for a studio to refrain from chasing the dream.
Have no fear: I don't expect to see Paramount taking out "For Your Consideration" ads for Michael Bay and his latest "Transformers" installment. But today's academy decision makes the Oscars more inclusive and more open to popular success, which, if you study history, was always a key ingredient in the awards game. It's easy to forget that plenty of great films were also commercial hits, including such Oscar winners as "The French Connection," "The Sting," "Patton," "Rocky" and, of course, the first two "Godfather" films. It's time the academy reclaimed that tradition. This move rewards both art and commerce, which is why it may be the wisest decision the academy has made in ages.
Photo of the Oscar statuette by Paul Hawthorne / Getty Images