Saturday, July 18, 2009

Going 10

The big news in June (right before I started my blog ... curses for not being timely!) was the announcement by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that this year's Oscar race would have 10 Best Picture nominees instead of the traditional five.

Academy President Sid Ganis said the reason came from a way for the Academy to expand the race to allow a comedy or documentary into the top five.

It was also mentioned that this is a throwback to Oscar's history to the 1930s and '40s when this was the norm.

However, I find the reasoning a little sketchy. It's no coincidence that last year's race saw the animated "WallE" and the Batman adventure "The Dark Knight" miss the cut for Best Picture. Their exclusion drew cries of "foul!" from their respective passionate fans. But the underlying notion here is that these were box office hits that appealed to a younger crowd, and in my opinion the Academy wants to court this demographic and boost television ratings -- which leads to ad revenue.

Which brings up several questions:

1) What is the goal of the Oscars? In a perfect world, they honor excellence on film. But since the 1920s, the award has been coveted and chased after, regardless of whether the term "best" applies or not. Still, the point is to give it the old college try and hope that the passage of time will prove that they got it right or at least were in the ballpark. I've always felt that the Oscar is at least a starting point for people who know little about films.

2) What is the purpose of categories like Best Foreign Film, Best Animated Film and Best Documentary? If the reason for expanding to 10 nominees is to include movies from these categories, then why not have one "Best Picture" category for all feature-length films and get rid of these specific film-type categories? The categories were created because these films rarely made it into the big race. So decide what's best, but stop trying to have it both ways.

3) Should TV ratings really count? Frankly, no. In 50 years, no one will know or care about the overnight numbers.

4) Should popularity count? Yes and no. It certainly doesn't hurt for a great movie to be a success at the box office. But success doesn't mean a film is great. I always point to "The Greatest Show on Earth," the most popular film of 1952 and the Oscar winner as Best Picture. (Have you seen it lately? I have -- trust me on this.) Even then people were scratching their heads over its win, and today it's downright ludicrous that it bested "High Noon" or "The Quiet Man" or that "Singing in the Rain" wasn't even nominated. Yet if the race were today, and "Greatest Show" and "Ivanhoe" were left out, there'd be an outcry about why popular films are always snubbed.

My thought: If you focus on quality, then deal with the criticism, and in the end you'll have people's respect, which should be more important that wanting them to really really like you.

Now, let's look at history, as this was a lesser reason for the Academy to "go 10. " First, as an aside: In its early years, the Oscar "year" was similar to a fiscal calendar, starting mid-year and lasting 12 months, which would go into the next year, hence the hyphenated Oscar year designation through 1932-33, when the "year" lasted 18 months to get the race on a calendar year.

For whatever reason, back in 1931-32, eight movies were allowed into the Best Picture category, rather than the five nominees that had comprised the category during the Academy's first four years of existence. The next year, the category expanded to ten nominees, which continued through 1943.

Except for two years, 1934 and 1935, when twelve nominees filled the Best Picture category. Who knows the reasoning -- my guess is due to ties in voting for nominees, which occurred in the 1935 acting races. Anyway, let's look at 1934: twelve nominees, and still films like "The Merry Widow," "Sons of the Desert" and "Twentieth Century" were glaring omissions from the list, in favor of "The White Parade," a film about nursing that I've never seen and wonder if it even exists anymore, and lesser filmes like "Here Comes the Navy" and "Flirtation Walk."

Then, in 1944, the year the number was reduced back to five, omissions included "Laura" and "Meet Me in St. Louis"!

In the ends, hundreds of films are released every year, and only a handful are nominated. Something will be left out, plain and simple. It's the nature of any awards race.

Will going 10 achieve the Academy's goal, or will it become a free-for-all? Will the show attract a big TV audience, or will it remain a giant catwalk with some awards thrown in for good measure? Will going 10 last for more than one year?

What do you think? Answer the poll or leave a comment.


  1. As one who tries to watch all the Best Picture nominess prior to the Oscar show, I think adding five more titles is ludicrous. I know its a cliche to say this, but it's usually a struggle to come up with five worthy titles and I don't see the situation improving any time soon. I hope the second half of 2009 is better than the first half, as I can't think of anything that would qualify for a Best Picture nominee save for "Up" and "Adventureland." I also wondered if they would do away with the Best Animated Feature category. If so, "Up" goes into that category.

    I think it would be ironic if the 10 nominees come out and they are all for pictures like "The Reader" instead of the more audience-friendly films they are obviously shooting for. I would love to be a fly on the wall in the Academy offices that morning.

    I'm more upset by the announcement that they are moving the special awards like the Thalberg awards and the life achievement award to a separate event. Those are often times the highlights of the broadcast in terms of emotion, and a good reminder that movie history did not begin with "Star Wars."

    I look at it this way. Sure the Oscar show might run longer than three hours, but it's only once a year. If I was a football fan, I'd be watching the Bears play almost every week for three hours for an entire season. Three hours once a year isn't such a sacrifice of time.

    "The Greatest Show on Earth" is not the best film of 1952, as Brian rightly says, but part of the fun of handicapping the Oscars is considering all the aspects that go into voting. In terms of Greatest Show, it was Cecil B. DeMille's penultimate film, and no doubt the industry wanted to honor one of its pioneers.

    But there are still boneheaded pictures being awarded today. "Gladiator"? "Crash" over "Brokeback Mountain"? Nope, the Academy has made some bad choices, and will continue to do so. It's not a perfect process and that's half the fun.

  2. I agree, Kevin. Considering how rarely the Academy makes changes, this one seems knee-jerk (at least within their timeframe). And the special awards ... why? What was the point of that? It won't save that much time, and part of bestowing and receiving those awards was a chance to be on stage during the show and enjoy the attention they deserve. Now it's as if the Academy is saying, "You deserve this prestigious award, but it's not important enough to include on the main telecast."