Writing a column about awards season—a column that, from now until the Oscar ceremony, will run on a weekly basis—comes with certain hazards. There’s the potential humiliation of wildly inaccurate Best Actor and Actress predictions. The pounding headaches that come with trying to comprehend the Best Picture nomination process. The existential crisis that sets in with comprehension of the Best Picture nomination process, which confirms that nothing in the world even needs to make sense anymore.
Then there’s the possibility that one of the many Oscar experts furiously analyzing the current race will cover the same subject you planned to tackle, at roughly the same time. That’s what happened to me this week. A few days ago, I filed a piece that argued in favor of reducing the number of Best Picture nominations to five, the way it was done in the olden days, i.e. prior to 2009. It was scheduled to run at The Dissolve today, but an hour after I filed, before my editor even had a chance to glance at it, I noticed Grantland had published a smart piece by Mark Harris on the same subject, making a strong argument for the exact same thing. Citing a trend first acknowledged by Northwestern University professor Nick Davis, he writes that the number of films nominated for top Oscar prizes has actually shrunk since the Best Picture field widened, achieving the opposite of what the Academy intended to do.
Noting that this year’s 44 nominations in major Oscar categories went to a grand total of 12 movies, Harris adds: “That’s the fewest in 30 years. What’s more, the second-lowest number of films represented in the major nominations in the last 30 years—14—happened just one year ago. And the third-lowest also happened in the five years since the rule change. The inescapable truth: Best Picture may have gotten bigger, but the Oscars have gotten smaller.” In my view, the case Harris makes is reason enough to justify a return to the five-best-picture-contender model. But it isn’t the only reason.
The current wild-card Best Picture setup—in which anywhere from five to 10 films can be nominated, and we don’t find out how many made the cut until nomination day—has been in place for three years. That’s long enough to determine that it isn’t working, and Harris’ bigger-ended-up-smaller argument isn’t the only reason why. Let’s examine Oscar’s current approach to that category based on five other factors. (I could have expanded the number of factors to as many as 10, but come on. That would just be silly.)
1. The wild-card approach still doesn’t capture all the deserving nominees—or always allow for Dark Knights to be included in the mix.
First, a brief history of the Best Picture category: For several years in the ’30s and ’40s, the Academy nominated as many as 12 films for Best Picture. That changed in 1944, when the list of competitors was capped at five. That cap stayed in place until 2009, when the Academy announced with great fanfare that it would expand the field to 10 nominees, a move that followed an Oscar year in which smaller, scarcely seen films like Frost/Nixon and The Reader were permitted to enter the Best Picture circle, but the critically acclaimed box-office powerhouses The Dark Knight and Wall-E were not.
“I would not be telling you the truth if I said the words ‘Dark Knight’ did not come up,” then-Academy president Sidney Ganis said of the reasons for going Best-Picture big. When the 2009 Best Picture nominees were revealed, the list included the mega-cash-cow Avatar, as well as films like The Blind Side and District 9, which presumably never would have made it into the final round if the category had been capped at five. To those who saw the change as positive, the mix of nominees seemed diverse and mainstream enough to resonate with actual moviegoers. But to those who didn’t care for the widening of the race, it looked like the Best Picture bouncer had fallen asleep at his velvet rope, allowing any old movie to waltz directly into the VIP section, even if its name wasn’t on the list. That sentiment, combined with a dip in the TV ratings for the 2011 Oscar broadcast, prompted the Academy to change things one more time, creating the middle ground that now exists: a Best Picture race that includes at least five movies, but is elastic enough to swell to 10 if the votes dictate.
Now, to recap recent Best Picture events: In 2009, when the field first expanded to 10, three of the year’s top-10-grossing movies (Avatar, Up, and The Blind Side) were nominated for the category. In 2010, two of the top revenue-generators were nominated—Toy Story 3 and Inception. In 2011—the first wild-card year, which resulted in nine nominees—none of the 10 big moneymakers inched into the category. The closest was The Help, which ranked 13th on 2011’s box-office list. That pattern repeated in 2012: nine movies were nominated; none came from the top-ticket-sellers bracket. The closest, once again, was the film that landed in the No. 13 spot for the year: Lincoln. This year, there’s one indisputable big box-office generator in the Best Picture category: Gravity, the seventh-biggest grosser of the year, and for the record, a film that likely would have been a Best Picture contender even in a field whittled down to five.
Some caveats here: Several of the recent Best Picture nominees qualified as hits even though they didn’t land in their end-of-year top 10. Silver Linings Playbook, which grossed $132 million on a budget of $21 million, was certainly a financial success. So were Argo and the surprisingly lucrative Midnight In Paris.
My ultimate point is this: Keeping the list potentially larger hasn’t really resolved the so-called Dark Knight issue. If it had, we might have seen films that also hit the sweet spot where quality filmmaking and cash money meet—Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows—Part 2, Skyfall, Frozen, or even, hey, The Dark Knight Rises—breaking into the Best Picture lineup. That hasn’t happened. Meanwhile, deserving movies with more unconventional, indie sensibilities are also still regularly passed over; see Drive, Moonrise Kingdom, Inside Llewyn Davis, Fruitvale Station, or Short Term 12 for further information.
I’m all in favor of making the Oscar race more accessible and reflective of what actual Americans go to see at the movies, as long as high standards don’t get chucked out the window. That’s why I was initially in favor of the change. But the past few years have proven that a larger Best Picture pool isn’t what ultimately makes that happen. Open-minded Academy voters—the kind willing to consider a wide variety of genres and filmmaking approaches, not to mention sit through a lot of screeners—are what make that happen. Well, that and popular movies that also deserve respect. Reducing the Best Picture options back to five wouldn’t necessarily deprive high-caliber blockbusters of a slot: previous nominees and winners (Star Wars, E.T., Titanic, all the Lord Of The Rings movies, and yes, Gravity) are proof of that. It would make the race more competitive, though, and therefore more compelling.
2. The expansion of the Best Picture field was supposed to improve the ratings for the Oscar broadcast. It hasn’t.
The natural result of a broader, potentially more mainstream Best Picture race, in theory, should have been higher TV ratings for the Academy Awards broadcast. The idea was that more people would care enough to tune in and watch the exciting conclusion of a race if they felt invested, and had actually seen the films. Initially, that plan seemed to work. In 2010, the first year the Academy Awards included 10 nominees, the ceremony attracted 41.3 million viewers, its biggest audience in five years. But the following year—the one with James Franco and Anne Hathaway—ratings fell by 10 percent, back down to 37.6 million viewers. In 2012, the first wild-card Best Picture ceremony, that number leapt a little, to 39.3 million; in 2013, it rose again, to 40.3 million.
What do all these numbers tell us? For starters, they suggest the Academy Award ratings are a lot like the stock market: They have up years and down years. Over the last decade, the audience has ranged from 32 million (2008, the lowest-rated Oscar broadcast ever) to 43 million (back in 2004, the year Return Of The King won roughly eight jillion statuettes). The odds of breaking significantly from that pattern—one where the number of viewers typically falls somewhere in the middle of that range—are unlikely, at least until James Cameron finally decides to make Titanic 2: The Rise From The Heart Of The Ocean. (The Titanic Oscars, in 1998, remains the highest-rated ceremony ever, with a captive audience of more than 53 million Leonardo DiCaprio lovers.)
When the Oscar ratings swing upward, reporters and observers tend to draw causal relationships where they may not exist; last year, some concluded that more people, especially younger ones, watched to see what host Seth MacFarlane would do. In 2010, the spike was partly attributed to the interest in Avatar. We don’t know for a fact what makes people inclined to watch the Oscars when they otherwise might not, but surely a nominated film with a large, engaged fan base can help. However, increasing the number of Best Picture nominees doesn’t guarantee that that kind of movie will be nominated—or for that matter, that one will even be released in a given year. Avatars and Titanics are pretty rare.
Looking at the ratings pendulum swing over the past four years, it’s difficult to argue that more nominees have guaranteed better ratings. With so many viewing options on a typical Sunday night, it’s harder now to capture a large audience, no matter how many hip hosts and accessible nominees the Academy yanks out of its sleeve. That’s just a fact. Whether there are five films up for Best Picture or 10, that probably isn’t going to change.
3. The wild-card Best Picture approach was supposed to make the race more surprising. It hasn’t.
As the L.A. Times noted, when the Academy’s board of governors refined the expanded category in 2011, they said it would add “a new twist” and “a new element of surprise” to the Oscars.
Here’s how the number of Best Picture nominees has panned out since that announcement.
- 2011: nine nominated movies.
- 2012: nine nominated movies.
- 2013: This is really going to shock you: nine nominated movies!
That doesn’t add much of a twist, does it? As the Times pointed out when the shift was made, the true barrier to genuine Oscar surprise is the fact that so many award shows—the Golden Globes, the Critics’ Choice Awards, the SAGs—are broadcast on national television before the Academy even gets its turn in the E! GlamCam sun. By then, even casual observers have a pretty solid sense of who is going to win, and may even be able to accurately predict, within a sentence or two, what those winners will say in their acceptance speeches. I suspect “I’m So Over The Oscars” syndrome will be an even greater issue this year, with the Olympics elongating the period between nomination day and Oscar day. (Then again, maybe not. If more time passes, perhaps we won’t remember exactly what Matthew McConaughey said at the Globes. Except for the “All right, all right, all right” part, which, for generations hence, shall never be forgotten.)
Honestly, I don’t see a way around awards-season fatigue. But one answer, perhaps, might be to zig with each zag of the Golden Globes—the second-most-watched movie-awards show. With the Globes splitting its Best Picture race into two categories, yielding a total of 10 or more nominated films, perhaps the Oscars can again differentiate itself by going selective and ultra-niche. It may not make the TV ratings higher, but as I just explained, that’s practically impossible to control anyway. But at least the Oscars might look like a different, special, and even smarter animal again.
4. Spreading the Best Picture love to more movies will result in box-office bumps for films that deserve to be seen. Except it hasn’t.
In theory, the Academy Awards exist first to honor great achievements in cinema, and second to remind people to go to the movies and see films they either missed in theaters, or never knew about in the first place. By that logic, an inflated number of Best Picture nominees should result in Oscar-season box-office bumps for a larger number of films. Except it hasn’t.
In recent years, some movies have certainly been helped by the acquisition of golden statuettes. The King’s Speech saw an upswing in ticket sales back in 2011, buoyed by a release expansion timed to coincide with the high volume of Oscar chatter. But when I visited Box Office Mojo and perused the weekend box-office figures for the Best Picture nominees during the three wild-card years, including this one (still in progress), I was surprised not to see more definitive revenue upticks. Some films—Silver Linings Playbook, The Descendants—cracked the box-office top 10 for the first time shortly after the nominations were announced—but like The King’s Speech, they got enormous help by opening in more multiplexes at the same time. Amour doubled its previous weekend’s box-office take the week before last year’s Oscar ceremony, but was still sitting in 20th place on the list of top ticket sellers. That’s a bump, but at less than $1 million of additional revenue, still a modest one for a film hardly designed to attract mass audiences.
More often than not, the Best Picture contenders brought in the bulk of their revenue in their initial weeks of release and saw mostly minor jumps, if any, as a result of their nominations. Some—Lincoln, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, War Horse—even saw their box-office figures go down during the post-Oscar nomination period, because the number of theaters showing them progressively decreased. It’s virtually impossible to benefit from an Oscar bump when fewer theaters are showing your movie.
On the weekend of the Academy Awards in 2012, not a single Best Picture nominee was in the weekend box-office top 10; in 2013, only Silver Linings Playbook was. The No. 1 movie that week? Identity Thief. The weekend after this year’s Academy Award nominations were announced, American Hustle business increased by 18.6 percent, suggesting a potential bump, while Her cracked the top 10 for the first time. Meanwhile, The Wolf Of Wall Street, at No. 9, experienced a box-office drop.
This assessment is complicated by the fact that several wild-card Best Picture contenders—Beasts Of The Southern Wild, Moneyball, The Help, among others—were already available on DVD or on demand when Academy Awards season kicked into high gear. It’s more challenging to assess how those sales, rentals, and downloads might have benefitted, because the numbers aren’t as easily accessible as box-office data. (Can someone please launch DVDandOnDemandMojo.com, ASAP?)
A quick scan of sales and rental data from Home Media Magazine suggests that Moneyball, for example, did well around the time it earned its Best Picture nomination. But it might have done well regardless, what with Brad Pitt’s face on the DVD cover. Most of the money trackers in Hollywood surely have already realized that more Best Picture nominees hasn’t necessarily translated into more dollars. Heightened awareness of certain films? Maybe. But awareness can’t be deposited in a bank account. If one of the goals of a broader Best Picture race was to boost revenues for the nominated movies, and by extension, the industry, it hasn’t worked effectively enough.
5. Having more Best Picture nominees dilutes the prestige of the Best Picture award.
This was the argument against the original plan to include 10 nominees: When you let in too many contenders, standards automatically diminish. Personally, I’m not sure the Best Picture title has lots any of its import. The award still commands respect, even when the Academy seems misguided in its winning vote. (We all know the stories of Crash and Dances With Wolves. Please, let’s not go there right now.)
But I still think the Best Picture category is better when it’s limited to five. Sure, commendable films will be left out. But that still happens now, even when the Academy goes long with nine or 10 nominees. Actually, as Harris persuasively points out, that happens even more now than it did before. A slate of five is more concise, which is perfect for our 140-character culture. It makes a stronger statement about what exactly the best is. It’s much easier to remember for those of us who have to discuss the Oscars on radio and TV shows. Which, as we all know, is what really matters here. It demands careful consideration of what’s for your consideration.
I appreciate that the Academy and the ceremony’s organizers have been open to so much change in recent years; I hope they’ll apply that same spirit of renewal to some other aspects of the Oscars that scream out for reinvention. (Music categories, for starters.) But the Best Picture race was fine the way it was. That’s even more abundantly clear now that it’s been done differently for several years. Perhaps in 2015—a year, notably, with an actual five in it—the Academy will realize the smartest thing it can do is make the old way new again.