- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 25, 2009

For the first time in more than 65 years, the Academy Awards will feature 10 best picture nominees, double the number the category has had in recent decades.

The move comes after recent criticism that the Academy Awards offer little for the average movie fan, a complaint illustrated by this fact: Sixteen of the last 20 best picture nominees have grossed less than $100 million, which is hardly an unattainable tally these days.

Sid Ganis, the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the group that puts on the Academy Awards, said in a press release that “having 10 Best Picture nominees is going [to] allow Academy voters to recognize some of the fantastic movies that often show up in other Oscar categories but have been squeezed out of the race for the top prize.”

Altering the number of nominations is nothing new for the academy - the field varied in size from 8 to 12 throughout the 1930s and ‘40s, and the 1928 inaugural ceremony limited best picture candidates to a mere three. But the new jump in nominees comes at a time when the televised awards ceremony’s length is an issue and many industry observers feel the number of quality films in contention has been hovering around historical lows.

“I wasn’t aware we were in a golden age of movies that necessitated expanding the field,” quipped film historian and longtime Washington Times and Washington Post critic Gary Arnold.

“My hunch is that this is more of a boon to the independent producers than anyone else,” Mr. Arnold said, sounding hopeful that more small, prestige films will now be recognized. “It seems to me that you’ll have two ‘Slumdog Millionaires’ get nominated instead of one.”

Syracuse University professor of pop culture Robert Thompson suggests that won’t necessarily be the case; he posits that a wider nomination process will entice academy voters to stray into more populist territory.

“If you were to go up and ask someone what their favorite 10 books are, they would probably be obligated in their top five to list five great literary masterpieces like ‘Hamlet’ or the Bible,” Mr. Thompson said. “If you allowed 10, you may slip in a book or two that you really enjoyed but didn’t quite fit into the canon of the classics.”

When asked if the academy was expanding the field in order to sweep in more box office hits of the kind it has often snubbed, Teni Melidonian, the academy’s publicist, intimated that that might be construed to be part of its rationale.

“This change allows Academy members to cast a wider net for best picture, and, yes, that may include box-office hits. It also may include animated features, documentaries and foreign language films,” she wrote.

But, she stressed, “Academy voters are still voting for the best movies of the year.”

If the goal of Mr. Ganis and others at the academy is to entice viewers by offering more popular fare in its most prestigious category, they might be disappointed when nominations are handed down Feb. 2.

“They’ll have the same membership with the same kind of tendencies that they’ve had to date,” Mr. Arnold said while trying to parse the academy’s reasoning. Why would the voters radically shift their voting patterns now?

Even if more blockbusters are nominated, it will be interesting to see if audiences react positively.

“Ten exacerbates the problem we’ve seen from the show, that you already can’t make [the running time] any shorter,” said Mr. Thompson.

It could also dilute the audience’s appreciation of the show’s competitive aspect. “The Oscars are often compared to the Super Bowl, and that’s the perfect example: one game, two teams, one winner takes all,” said Mr. Thompson, who speculates that the increased show length and decreased exclusivity of the best picture category might well cancel out any potential appeal of more box office hits scoring the night’s biggest nomination.

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