By Shane McNeil
In a move that smacks of more desperation than the now classic “downloading a movie is stealing” campaign, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has announced that this year’s Oscars will double the number of best picture nominees from five to ten.
Before I launch into the ins and outs of this decision, I just have to admit that I didn’t think Christopher Nolan had this much clout.
You see, on paper this seems like an interesting new ploy to drum up interest in the awards ceremony and to make the evening’s festivities all the more competitive and interesting. Joe Popcorn may have more incentive to watch in hopes that the movie he’s seen (under last year’s probabilities, The Dark Knight) beats out the five lovingly-crafted, adeptly-executed pieces of soon-to-be-classic cinema that earned their Oscar nominations the hard, old-fashioned way (under last year’s probabilities, the five nominees that made it).
In addition, you get more people in on the party, more Hollywood involvement, more ads, more public interest, and, ultimately, more people going to theatres. That part of it, I think, is beneficial and actually pretty crafty.
Now allow me to retort. This may seem like a brand new idea to some, but for most of us it’s not. The Oscar long list used to be exactly that… long. The final ballot consisted of ten films from 1933 (upped from eight in ’32, when it had been upped from our familiar five) until 1944 when the ballot was whittled back down to five.
Let’s stop on that for a second… 1933 to 1944.
A period spanning the worst economic meltdown the world has ever seen and the Second World War.
While we are in somewhat trying economic times, are we really in the same kind of trouble this time round? Obviously not. And, while I applaud the movie industry for not having the audacity to actually ask for a bailout, I still have to question the motivation behind the move.
I can’t see this boosting film sales as much as it may boost ratings. After all, how many people saw Frost vs. Nixon after it got its best picture nod? Probably only the completists. You know, those people who wake up early to hear the nominees announced and make it their business to stay in the know come Oscar night (which I applaud). But are said people likely to go out and see ten films in the span of two to three months or are they just more likely to pick and choose the couple they probably would have seen anyway?
Another consequence of the double-up is dilution of a pretty exclusive club. The five-film ballot has excluded some excellent films over the past 60-odd years. Singin’ in the Rain, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Vertigo, The Wild Bunch, Do the Right Thing, and (yeah, I’ll admit it) The Dark Knight have all failed to make the cut. And that’s a shame. But it is, after all, a numbers game.
Let’s look back to those long-list years. Did some classics benefit from the nomination? Naturally. Without the ten-film list It’s a Wonderful Life, The Great Dictator, The Maltese Falcon, and The Wizard of Oz may conceivably have missed the cut. However, when you look back at the films that did round out those lists, I’d be astonished if many would recognize, let alone have seen, the majority of those films (with all due respect to the legions of Naughty Marietta and Ruggles of Red Gap fans out there).
To put it into modern context, with an extra five slots we’d see films like Almost Famous, The Dark Knight, Being John Malkovich, Hotel Rwanda — and maybe even City of God or Finding Nemo — squeak out a best picture nod.
However, we’d also have to deal with a lot of films that campaigned really hard and justifiably missed the cut on their cinematic merits, such as Dreamgirls, Cold Mountain, American Gangster, and Cinderella Man. Good films, some, but not best picture material.
Now, this decision may be temporary. It may only last a year. Or it may last a decade, and history will look back on the 1945-2009 time period as archaic and unfair, similar to the first batch of Oscars that featured only three nominees and divvied the field up into “artistic” and “regular” productions.
In the end, a spade is a spade. The best picture should end up winning out as it usually does (ok, unless the Weinsteins and/or gay cowboys are involved) and maybe, just maybe the whole Oscar season will be that much more interesting.
Typically though, the films most damaged by a snub are popular ones that audiences pull for only because they’ve seen them. The five nominations announced really benefit smaller, (often) better pictures. So how much is this change about drumming up interest and how much is it really about replenishing the Academy’s substantial bank accounts?