After six years of experimentation, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is, according to sources at The Hollywood Reporter, potentially considering the idea of reverting back to only five Best Picture nominees. This would mark a fairly radical reversal from the Academy, especially considering all the public relation maneuverings that occurred in 2009 when it made the decision to expand the Best Picture race to ten. If this action comes to fruition – the Academy’s Board of Governors are next scheduled to meet on March 24th where a decision might be made – it would mark the expanded Best Picture race as something of a blunder on the part of the Academy.
The Academy hasn’t made an official comment but there appears to be groundswell of support within its membership to revert back to five Best Picture nominees. “They tried it, and it really didn’t do us any good,” was a comment made by high level source. The expansion of the Best Picture category has been criticized as a ploy to increase the ratings of the Oscar telecast in the hopes that more top-grossing movies would be included in the category, which some feel waters down the prestige factor of the award itself. This past year, for example, saw eight films vying for Best Picture, all of which were independent art house fare, with the exception of huge moneymaker American Sniper. Birdman, a specialty title from Fox Searchlight Pictures (which had made less than $40 million domestically ahead of the awards) won Best Picture. Not surprisingly, ratings for the telecast took a nosedive from a two-year period where the show had improvement in viewership.
Historically, there were ten Best Picture nominees from 1932-1943 until the Academy narrowed it down to five, a pattern that has been alive throughout the majority of the Academy’s 87 year history. In 2009, the Academy made the somewhat controversial decision to expand the category, a decision stemming from the 2009 ceremony which received jeers from movie fans and critics due to the exclusion of critically admired populist fare from the Best Picture lineup. Most of the vitriol thrown at the Academy was in the form of the snub of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, even though the film received eight Oscar nominations and won two Oscars (including a posthumous prize for Heath Ledger).
The Academy made another abrupt decision in 2011, following two years of a Best Picture category made up of ten contenders, in altering the process so that there could be anywhere between five and ten films included in the top category, as long as a given film received a requisite number of votes. This change stemmed from criticism that a ten-deep Best Picture lineup could inadvertently let in films that didn’t deserve the distinction. Since then, nine films have been nominated for Best Picture for the 2011, 2012, and 2013 Academy Awards; this past year saw eight Best Picture nominees.
A debate will likely linger for some time as to what’s best for the Academy. An expanded Best Picture field has seen a number of titles included that otherwise would not have been there, including genre fare like District 9 (2009), animated movies like Up (2009) and Toy Story 3 (2010), eclectic art house films like A Serious Man (2009) and Her (2013), and films centered around women or minority figures like Winter’s Bone (2010) and Selma (2014). The inclusion of titles like that seems like exactly what the Academy had in mind when they made the decision to expand the Best Picture race - even American Sniper from this past year would have been on the bubble in a race of only five.
Then again, if ratings were the only thing the Academy had in mind, the larger perspective is the fact that the Oscar telecast has regularly jumped up and down with viewers from in any given year. For instance, the highest rated telecast to date was the year mega-blockbuster Titanic won Best Picture, as well as ten other Academy Awards. There’s also an oft-cited argument that with an expanded Best Picture race, the Academy will continue to pick more of the same type of films (prestige biopics, art house titles) versus embracing movies that may have captured the hearts and imaginations of the movie-going public. Since the snub of The Dark Knight, for example, no comic-book adaptations or well-received blockbusters have been up for the top prize, even though titles as varied as Star Trek (2009), Skyfall (2012), and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) earned nominations elsewhere and had critical credibility to lay alongside their gargantuan box office takes.
The Academy’s Board of Governors are next scheduled to meet on March 24th to review the most recent Oscars telecast, at which a proposal to revert back to five Best Picture nominees may be on the table.