- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 5, 2009

During its 82-year existence, the Academy Awards have been subject to almost annual readjustments and changes of mind by its governing body, comprised of representatives chosen within the principal guilds and unions of the Hollywood movie industry. This tinkering with guidelines and bylaws can range from the merest tweaks to 180-degree reversals.

Two weeks ago when Sidney Ganis, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, announced a flurry of changes, the first attracted the most notice: the Best Picture category would be expanded to 10 finalists, doubling the number that had been maintained for two generations — since the 1944 awards, to be precise.

In the late 1950s the Academy’s board of governors attempted to reduce the number of categories by eliminating the separate recognition for black-and-white and color films in the cinematography, art direction and costume-design branches. As of 1957, they were limited to one category each, regardless of chromatics.

The practical result: No black-and-white films were among the finalists. A year later the cinematographers were permitted two categories again. The designers were restored to the same privilege in 1959. This change proved a decade premature. By the time it was resurrected in 1967, cameramen and designers didn’t feel seriously diminished, because black-and-white movies had become a rarity.

Perhaps craftily anticipating the time needed to flatter five additional Best Picture nominees during the annual Oscar telecast, Mr. Ganis also announced that three awards would no longer be a part of the show: the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award, for prominent producers; the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, for philanthropic colleagues; and the Honorary Awards, designed to salute distinguished film careers, often for those who failed to win competitive Oscars for one reason or another.

Always announced in advance, they will be relegated to a separate banquet presentation in November, well before the awards season begins. Mr. Ganis insists that the recipients will also be acknowledged at the Oscar show, but some entertainment and sentimental value may be sacrificed, especially with the Honorary Awards.

Let’s envision major directors such as Ridley Scott or Peter Weir failing to win the Oscar for best direction in the next 10 or 15 years. They’re already plausible candidates for an Honorary consolation prize. Would it be wise or just to divert them to a small ceremony when scores of the performers they’ve directed will congregate at the Oscars? What if Martin Scorsese had remained without a best direction award into his ‘70s or ‘80s? Would denying him the big showcase have made sense? Some serious reconsideration is needed to prevent the Academy from looking as if august recipients are being shortchanged.

The return to 10 nominations for Best Picture seems a transparent bid for a novelty that could boost the flagging or stagnant ratings of Oscar shows over the last five years. Ideally, the Academy needs a popular spectacle that also proves an Oscar powerhouse, such as “Titanic” in 1997 or “The Return of the King” in 2003. An optimum front-runner has eluded the Academy during winning years for “Million Dollar Baby,” “Crash,” “The Departed,” “No Country for Old Men” and “Slumdog Millionaire.”

Mr. Ganis invoked the revered shades of 1939 when rationalizing the return to 10 nominees for best picture. There were 10 at that time, but in retrospect, the category would probably look stronger if you retained “Gone With the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Stagecoach” and “Ninotchka,” then added any one of the other six to round out an elite five. A more plausible argument for 10 exists with the best movies of 1940 — and perhaps 1946, after the Academy had cut back and five finalists became the norm in almost all categories. A funny thing happened when the Best Picture finalists expanded to 10 for the first time, in 1933 — posterity got “Cavalcade” as the now inexplicable Oscar winner.

Mr. Ganis neglected to stress that the Academy has grown accustomed to lavish advertising revenue for the Oscar telecast since the early 1980s. Suddenly strapped for advertisers in the recession economy, the Academy permitted movie companies to place trailers in the last Oscar show, though only one per distributor. That could be doubled, or doubled again, in years ahead. For an interlude in the 1960s the industry prided itself on sponsoring the entire show.

Mr. Ganis also failed to mention that the next Oscar telecast has a March date, which used to be customary. A few years ago it was changed to February, with much fanfare, supposedly because the Oscars were such a draw that only a rating sweeps month would suffice. Now it appears ABC Television, a division of the Walt Disney business empire, is content to let the Super Bowl dominate February.

Mr. Ganis hinted at a “diversity” he’d prefer in the additional nominees: perhaps an animated feature, a documentary feature, a romantic comedy. There was a strong feeling that both “Wall•E” and “The Dark Knight” were shortchanged during the last Oscar race, even though “Wall•E” did win as best animated feature. Mr. Ganis isn’t risking a quarrel with the moviegoing public when appealing for a Best Picture slate with a more popular profile. He needs to make the case to his own membership, which seems to prefer independent features with misanthropic tendencies.

The Oscars are self-congratulatory prizes from a professional organization, designed to reflect the tastes and aspirations of Academy members. As a rule, popularity subsidizes prestige, which rates higher when awards are being determined. Hollywood’s two constituencies may defy reconciliation unless the Academy also intends to adopt the People’s Choice Awards and promote two sets of “best movie” finalists, one tilted toward mass popularity and the other toward professional pride. Every 10 years or so a movie may come along that satisfies both cravings, but it won’t be much of a trick for that movie to dominate a field with five, 10 or 20 finalists.

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