Changes to the Academy Awards

A few weeks ago Ganis announced some changes to the Academy Awards cerimony. The most notable change is the expansion of the Best Picture category from 5 to 10 films. Some other, smaller changes were announced as well, including moving "honorary" awards to a separate ceremony in November. I found the announcement a bit surprising and am tentatively excited to see how it works out.

The change is almost certainly a reaction to last year's batch of Best Picture nominees, which was notable for the absense of two films: The Dark Knight and Wall-E. Both are excellent films and both were amazingly popular with audiences, and their absense from the Best Picture category was probably felt. Ratings for the Oscars have been falling for years... last year had a small bump over the previous year, but it's still relatively low compared to most recent years... including a little over 10 years ago, when the enormously popular Titanic won Best Picture and 57 million people tuned in (compared to last year's 36 million). Even before last year, the disconnect between nominees and what people actually watched was pretty wide. A frequent lament heard during Oscar season is how people haven't even heard of half the nominated movies, let alone seen them.

So will doubling the nominees help? In theory, sure... but I keep wondering about that. This could certainly backfire. Everyone is assuming that the extra slots will be filled with commercially popular films, but that's not a certainty. How annoying would the Oscars be if you haven't seen or heard of any of the 10 nominees? That's probably unlikely, but you never know. On the opposite end of the spectrum, what would happen if the extra 5 nominees contain subpar movies? That could end up devaluing the Oscars even further. The Academy has been mentioning that this increase to 10 nominees is not unprecedented. Apparently the Oscars had 10 nominees regularly in the 1930s and early 40s. Of course, Hollywood's output back then far outstips our current output. During that era, a major studio would put out at least 50 films a year. These days, 20 films in a year would be about as high as it gets. On the other hand, there were about 300 eligible films last year, and picking 10 of those seems reasonable enough. The other issue is that some of the smaller categories like Best Animated Film and Best Foreign film still exist, which means that while such films might get a Best Picture nod, they'll almost certainly lose (because they'll be winning their other award). If the Academy truly wanted to get a diverse set of movies and give then an equal chance to win, they would get rid of these other categories.

All of that nitpicking aside, I think it will be a positive thing. I'm an unabashed fan of genre films (horror, sci-fi, etc...), and the Academy is infamous for avoiding such films, especially in the Best Picture category. The Academy is also infamous for avoiding Comedies. The last Comedy to win Best Picture was Annie Hall. And how did that manage to win? It's main competition was a Science Fiction film. So I'm hoping that this change means we'll get more than your standard drama, historical drama, or drama films that usually get nominated. Maybe a horror movie, SF movie, or even a comedy will make it on the list. So there's a short term benefit here in that more films people like watching might actually be nominated.

Of course, being nominated doesn't guarantee anything about the winner... but if a genre movie has a chance of being nominated, perhaps studios and talented filmmakers will be encouraged to embrace such genres instead of constantly chasing after the Academy's idiosyncratic notion of a "good" film. Removing that stigma would be a good thing overall. Also, as the economy shrinks, major studios have become more risk-averse and are spending less money on independent films (indeed, most stuidos have closed or severely cut their independent divisions). If more independent films could become more successful, we might see an increase in quantity and quality. So the potential for long-term benefit is also there.

The strange thing about this change is that it probably should have been made last year, when the most successful movies at the box office were also among the best movies (i.e. the aforementioned Dark Knight and Wall-E). This year (so far, at least) sees less of a convergence between box office and quality. Can you imagine Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen being nominated? Not that it will, but still. What movies stand to benefit this year? Up will almost certainly garner a nomination thanks to this change. After that, things get less certain. Other children's fare, such as Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are might even benefit. I'm betting The Hurt Locker will be nominated (but that might have made it anyway). Other indie possibilities include Moon and The Brothers Bloom. More mainstream fare like Star Trek might even make it. As for the rest of the year, I'm not sure. This change might bode well for Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, Scorsese's Shutter Island, and James Cameron's Avatar, all of which are genre films that the Academy doesn't typically reward. More traditional Oscar fare like Eastwood's Invictus and Soderbergh's The Informant!, among many others I'm sure I'm forgetting, will certainly garner attention. All of this assumes these movies are good, but one can hope. It will almost certainly make my annual liveblogging less of a chore.