Today, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that the slate of nominees for next year’s Best Picture category at the Oscars will be expanded from 5 to 10, at least in part to accommodate this year’s outcry when blockbustery critical darlings like WALL-E and The Dark Knight were shut out at the expense of, among others, the awful The Reader. I’m genuinely torn on this. Like so many others, I’m having some problems transitioning my love for movies into a love for this insanely over-hyped awards show, that more often than not ends up throwing statuettes at unworthy movies. But if my trying to pretend that I don’t really care about the Oscars was really sincere, I guess I wouldn’t be writing about this at all. Yet here I am, typing away.
This leaves basically two other possible reactions. First, I could applaud the (admittedly transparently populist) move as a step on the way to broaden the image people generally have of what makes for an Oscar movie. Expanding the number of nominees should, at least theoretically, make it easier for movies with smaller promotional budgets or slightly less savvy marketing executives to gain their masterpiece a nod. Hopefully, such an expansion could also signal an opening for that movies that don’t necessarily speak equally to all parts of the Academy, or genres that generally have had a harder time getting recognized in the Best Picture category (like comedies, animated movies/children’s movies or documentaries), than the predictably mainstream epics the Academy have made an art form out of over-recognizing. In addition to ideally giving the Oscars broader popular legitimacy and making the Academy able to recognize great achievements over a broader scale of genres, it could also help smaller movies get the audience they deserve. I know, it will still take a lot to make the cut, but we know from recent years what it could mean for small movies to gain a nomination. Michelle Leo was nominated for Best Actress (a category that’s reportedly staying at five nominees) for the low-budget thriller Frozen River last year, giving it a lot more attention, and now that attention could potentially be doled out to other similarly low-budget movies as well. Anything that makes people see more good movies has to be a good thing.
Still, I can’t help but play a little devil’s advocate here. I’m not particularly annoyed by how the Academy all-but admits that this expansion came into being because of the declining viewership the ceremony has attracted over the last several years (although it was actually up again slightly this year). I could have been annoyed by that if had actually considered the Oscars first and foremost a noble battle among the finest works of cinematic art in any given year, instead of what it mostly is; a competition between marketing strategists to get the right people within the Academy to see your movie and then spread the word.
But if we back off the cynicism for a minute, a couple of concerns still arise. Most importantly, if we buy into the notion that an Oscar still is the most exclusive recognition a movie can get, an expansion could potentially reduce the prestige of the Best Picture category. If the crop of movies to choose is a weak one, as it arguably was this year, this move could mean that picking a Best Picture winner in the future would mean picking The Better Of The Good, instead of picking The Best Of The Best. Also, I’m not sure whether I approve of the way the Academy seems to have locked itself to the expansion in advance: If next year’s field turns out to be as thin as last year’s, they would still be obligated to choose ten movies, of which maybe two or three are great, another three or four are good but not extraordinary, while the final three or four are included simply to fill the fixed quota and please the big companies. The more sensible approach, and one that would take care of prestige problem while at the same time offering some flexibility, would be to scrap the predetermined number of nominees altogether, and simply nominate the movies that merit a nomination, no matter how many or how few. I know this would not necessarily solve the problem of the unorthodox Oscar movies currently being let out, but it would nevertheless make the move feel less rigid, and bring the focus back on the quality of the movies.
Still, no matter where you end up on the question of whether this is a good or a bad move, a humble or a purely cynical move, I can’t help but think about what it could have meant to this year’s Oscars if next year’s rules had been in place this March. On the plus side, Revolutionary Road and The Dark Knight would probably have been given the honor they deserve, and maybe even Man on Wire, the winner in the Best Documentary category. Alongside Milk (take one here, take two here), they would have provided a much-needed sense of audacity in the way to tell a story and shown that what is serious doesn’t always have to be one hundred percent serious, and equally boring (see: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). One possible downside then, is that a movie like Doubt, a movie good only in the safest, dullest and most distant meaning of the word (it doesn’t hold up well over time), could easily take the slot instead, playing to the Academy’s taste for well-acted but non-spectacular Issue Movies. And, even though in the end this of course is a question of personal tastes, such a retroactive expansion would still do nothing to fix the most serious flaw: After all, The Reader would still have been nominated, and I’m not sure I’m thrilled thinking about the possibility that Australia still could have taken the slot initially reserved for Revolutionary Road…