Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Oscar Broadens Top Field to Ten Contenders

The Academy Awards are getting an overhaul. In the most surprising news to come from Oscar headquarters in years, the Best Picture category is being expanded from five to ten nominees. This decision marks the first time that more than five Best Picture nominees will be recognized since 1943, the year Casablanca won the top honor. Read the bombshell news story here.

Although this comes as good news for producers, directors, and other artists involved with Oscar bait films due for release this fall, the change presents a number of potential problems. For one, doubling the number of nominees to present will increase the already long running time of the telecast. Since the Oscar ceremony is no stranger to bad ratings, this might not be a wise decision from a fiscal standpoint. Oscar organizers have to remember that American audiences have some of the shortest attention spans in the world. If a program fails to provide a consistent source of audiovisual stimulation, the viewer will tune out.

One does not have to be a Hollywood insider to know the reason behind the expansion. When the nominations for the 81st Academy Awards were announced five months ago, many awards trackers, among whom I count myself, found the following words escaping our lips when reviewing the five films nominated for Best Picture of the Year: "Where the hell is The Dark Knight?" Kevin Smith hit the nail on the head when he called the picture "The Godfather, Part II of comic book films" last summer. Of course, I made my displeasure at the Academy's elitist omission known shortly after the nominations were announced. For The Dark Knight and other great films released last year, the double-up comes as too little, too late.

This brings up another problem. 2008 was a sensational year for cinema. An output that strong in both quality and quantity does not occur every year. Should the worst case scenario unfold one year whereby five decent films stand out from an abysmal crowd as the best of the worst, would that leave the Academy to scrape the bottom of the barrel for five stinkers to fill the vacancies? On the other hand, suppose the world sees another banner year for movies in the near future. With the roster bumped up to ten competitors, can we really count on the Academy to find at least one film viewers would tune in to see win a few statuettes on show night? Ideally, the widening of the competitive margin would spur Academy voters to drop their snooty sensibility like a hot rock and recognize top grossing films that deserve to be in the running. I shudder to think that the Academy would deliberately omit another Dark Knight from the top category with the number of entries now at ten.

Nominating films for major awards is a balancing act. While it does require a discerning mind to point out efforts worthy of accolades, ("best" is the first word of every category for a reason) there is such a thing as taking that mindset too far. To dismissively regard all popular movies as those pictures simply because they perform well at the box office is a tremendous mistake. Even if the Academy is represented by a group of voters whose tastes do not uniformly align, the one fact on which they must all agree is that it is possible to make blockbusters with artistic merit. It's been done before and it will certainly by done again. In my lifetime, there has been no stronger exemplification of this rule than Raiders of the Lost Ark.

With this, I hereby enforce an ad hoc policy on the Academy: from this day forward, said voters must nominate no fewer than one top grossing film for Best Picture every year. It's only fair, it will bring good ratings, and it will help repair your reputation as an out-of-touch country club who consistently alientates the public. You've got your work ahead of you, AMPAS. If you can't find one popular movie to include among the top contenders from here on out, the rest of us will know you haven't got much sense.

Here is where I'll submerge my impulse to expound what the change will mean for other categories and will instead open discussion for your thoughts. What do you think about the Academy widening the Best Picture category? Do you think it's a wise decision or a foolish one? Had the Academy made this decision last year, do think The Dark Knight would have been nominated for Best Picture? Whatever your thoughts, feel free to sound off.

No comments: