The decision, starting with the 2010 ceremony, to nominate ten films for Best Picture at the Academy Awards was, while not unprecedented, one of the biggest shake-ups in the 80+ years of the Oscars. Widely believed to be driven by plummeting ratings, and the failure of Christopher Nolan's critically praised superhero megahit "The Dark Knight" to pick up a nomination in 2009, the move widened the field, seeing both blockbusters and small indie films sneak in to the final selection. While ratings have picked up, particularly thanks to one of the biggest-grossing awards fields in recent memory this year, the Academy isn't quite done tinkering, with a surprise move being announced this morning that looks to turn the awards race upside down once again.
It was announced in a press release in the early hours of this morning, via Deadline, that the governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voted yesterday to approve a new move, whereby ten best picture nominees are no longer guaranteed. Instead, a film must poll above 5% of first place votes during the nomination process in order to gain a slot (the average for the top-placed film is around 20%), meaning that the field could number anywhere between five and ten nominations, but that number will remain up for grabs until the nominations are announced.
Departing Academy executive director Bruce Davis suggested the change saying, "In studying the data, what stood out was that Academy members had regularly shown a strong admiration for more than five movies. A Best Picture nomination should be an indication of extraordinary merit. If there are only eight pictures that truly earn that honor in a given year, we shouldn’t feel an obligation to round out the number.” While not naming any names, the release reveals that, between 2001 and 2008, adoption of the new system would have resulted in years where 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 films would have picked nominations.
So, what does this mean, other than the introduction of a fun new parlor game where you guess which years would have had what number of nominees (we'd wager that 2003 would have seen only 5 nominees, seeing that "Return of the King" undoubtedly swept the board that year, while the banner year of 2007 could have been a 9-strong field)? For one, it's an attention-grabbing move, undoubtedly reminiscent of a reality show, presumably intended to inject a little drama into the seemingly-endless awards season, which will certainly raise interest levels in the nomination announcement, as well as breaking the hearts of a few publicists and filmmakers.
Otherwise, it's hard to say how the line-up would have been affected in recent years: the Academy is notoriously secretive as to the actual number and percentage of votes polled by films. But it's easy to see that, of the last few years, pictures like "A Serious Man," "127 Hours," "Winter's Bone" and "District 9" would likely have fallen out: most were surprise inclusions, and were never seen as real contenders. There's a strong argument to be made in favor of the system, to be sure: if a film only polled 2 or 3 percent of votes, but happened to be the tenth nominee, its worthiness for a nomination certainly comes into a question, and some Academy members disliked the ten-strong field, claiming it devalued a nomination.
At the same time, we can't help but feel it's the smaller, quality pictures that will lose out here. Taking "Winter's Bone" as an example, a film that few thought would make the final ten, and one that likely came in 9th or 10th among the vote-getters. Widening the field has enabled a film like that, a critics favorite that might only connect with a small percentage of Academy voters, to gain wider recognition, helping DVD sales at the very least, and pushing an underdog film towards profitability. The run-up to last year's Oscar ceremony would undoubtedly have been weaker without it.
Of course, there's no way of saying that it wouldn't have made a nomination: last year's awards race was one of the most wide open in years, and we'd wager that the votes were spread quite widely (although we'd place money on "127 Hours" having missed out). And it could actually work in favor of the underdogs: voters might use their first-place vote to go for a smaller, more deserving picture, knowing that they can always vote for "The King's Speech," or its equivalent, in the final run-off. Either way, it's made the race a little more interesting this time around, and we're sure that it'll mean the marathon season is even more hotly contested than ever.
There's also been a selection of other changes to the rules this time around. The rules for the Best Animated Feature Film category have been tweaked. Again, there will be between three and five nominations, depending on the number of films that qualify: fewer than twelve features will see three nominations, between thirteen and fifteen will see four, and sixteen or over will see five. The category should be interesting this year, with heavy-hitters Pixar and DreamWorks putting out uninspiring sequels, which should give a boost to upstarts like Paramount's "Rango" and Aardman's "Arthur Christmas," especially with "The Adventures of Tintin" being too motion-capture heavy to qualify.
Furthermore, with the introduction of five nominees for Best Visual Effects last year has seen the number of films announced for the preliminary "bake-off" increase to ten, doubling the chance for "Green Lantern" to be disappointed. Finally, the documentary branch, which previously had an odd October-to-October qualifying calendar, has finally got with the program, with this year seeing an October 2010 to December 2011 period, and then falling into line from 2012 onwards. The Academy Awards will take place on Sunday, February 26th 2012, with this year's nominations being announced on Tuesday, January 24th.