Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Oscar Ten--A Wednesday Movie Journal

The first thing I did this summer when I heard that Oscar would nominate ten Best Pictures, was to research why the Academy went from 10 down to 5 nominees back in 1944.  I figured that if I understood the Academy's rationale then, for narrowing the field, then maybe there is some precedent in tradition to explain why the field has been widened.

I went on the AMPAS web site, and looked at various critics' blogs, all to no avail.  That's right, not even the Academy's web site had archival information about the accepted numbers of nominees.

Based on what  knew about the movie business, I speculated that, since one consequence of television was a reduction in the number of films that Hollywood produced, it made sense that with lack of volume came a reduced number of quality pictures per studio.  With less revenue coming from fewer pictures, studios could promote fewer movies for Oscar consideration. 

BULETIN: Today, I got a news feed from a blogger who addressed this topic.  Katherine Lee of made these observations:

Ten nominees for Best Picture, really, Academy? Are you seriously saying the caliber of all these movies was so stellar this year you couldn’t narrow it down to five? Why not call it what it is: A gimmick to get people to buy more tickets to see more movies. Because otherwise, the only reason I can come up with is sheer laziness.
The last time 10 films were nominated for Best Picture was 1944, the year of “Song of Bernadette,” the front-runner, and “Casablanca,” the dark horse that ended up winning. The number of films was reduced to five the following year because the Oscars were broadcast live on TV for the first time and was running into the early hours of the morning.

It comes as no surprise that TV may have been instrumental in the rule change in1944 as it is in 2010.  To me, it is an interesting commentary on the evolution of the Oscars and the Academy's attempt to reinvent itself.

I agree with Lee's assertion that the additional nominees will drive movie fans to see five additional films in order to fully participate in the festivities, enter the conversation, and, even, wager intelligently in the office pools. 

So with the Oscar telecast promoting even more movies, the industry box-office bottom line should improve.

Ironically, the wider field of contenders has as much to do with the Annual Broadcast as it does with the movie awards.  The most frequent rationale I have heard for expanding the field this year goes something like this:  "Last year, 'The Dark Knight' was not nominated for Best Picture, but would have been if there were additional slots in the category.  By expanding the list of nominees for Best Picture, it is likely that more popular or genre films will be cited, thus the Television Event will see higher ratings (because the ratings for The Show increase with the popularity of the nominated films.)"  If viewers tune out, then the Oscars lose their relevance.....  And so, it's a matter of survival for AMPAS. 

Therefore it appears that the Academy has as much at stake in the ratings for the Oscar Show as it does in recognizing great achievements in filmmaking. 

My question is this:  How could the Academy be sure its theory would work in practice?  Unless there was some unspoken appeal to voters, in their complicated nomination ballots, to include some "populist" titles among the ten (meaning, films that no one would have ever considered significantly Best-Picture-worthy.) 

How else to account for titles like "District 9" and "The Blind Side" in the running?  Or even "Up", an astonishing film, perhaps my favorite of the ten, so likely to win in the Animated Film category that its mention among Best Picture contenders is almost a wasted nomination?

In any other year, if there were still just five Best Picture contenders, this year's nominees might have exactly matched the Best Director nominees: "Avatar", "Hurt Locker", "Inglourious Basterds". "Precious", and "Up In The Air".  So how was the Academy so sure that the remaining five slots would not go to critically praised but less popular pictures like "A Single Man"? "Broken Embraces"? "The White Ribbon"? "500 Days of Summer"?  "Capitalism: A Love Story"? 

(Although Foreign Language films still have an antiquated category of their own, it has not been unusual for oscar to recognize foreign films as Best Picture nominees:  "Grand Illusion", "Z", "The Emigrants", "Cries and Whispers", "Il Postino", "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon", "Life is Beautiful", even two hours worth of "The Godfather, Part II".)

But, that's Hollywood, the world capital of illusion, and spinner of dreams....   In an upcoming post I'll handicap this category, and a few others.  HINT: A lot of artificial suspense has been created in order to maintain interest in the Show, and ensure high ratings.  I think the winners will be the same front-runners we expected since the Golden Globes in January....I hope my readers will weigh in and prove this theory wrong.....

The boy in me, the one who fell in love with Oscar so long ago, is giddy for some upsets...and I have my favorites....

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