The 2010 Oscar Best Picture Race… What are We In For?

As I sit down to ponder yesterday’s news announcing the Oscars have increased the number of Best Picture nominees from five to ten beginning with the 2010 Oscars I have Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans playing in the background. It wasn’t one of the five films nominated for Best Picture at the 1993 Oscars, but with the new rules would it have been? I’m not quite sure, but I would assume The Player, Glengarry Glen Ross, Reservoir Dogs and Malcolm X would have definitely been in the mix. But would it have really mattered?

The Academy’s decision to shake things up according to AMPAS President Sid Ganis is to return “to some of its earlier roots.” By this he is referring to the period between 1932 and 1943 when the Best Picture category was usually made up of ten films. The exceptions in those years included the 1931/1932 ceremony with eight nominees and 1934/1935 ceremony with 12. However, is this really an attempt to go back to the old days following the 2009 Oscars, which were far from nostalgic with a rather impressive revamped ceremony?

Over at the Los Angeles Times Meg James put together a nice piece which included a quote from television analyst Larry Gerbrandt of Media Valuation Partners saying, “Hollywood is out of step with an audience that has already gone interactive with their own reviews, recommendations and Tweets. They no longer want a group of industry insiders telling them what they have already spent hard coin to validate. TV is about the mass audience, not auteurs or political correctness or even critical acclaim.”

Personally I think Gerbrandt is wrong in his opinion here. People love to get the opinion of others. The problem isn’t the opinion, it’s the topic of conversation that upsets most people. Audiences aren’t tuning out the Oscar celebration because Slumdog Millionaire won Best Picture this past year or because Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Reader were nominated. They tuned out because films such as The Dark Knight and WALL•E weren’t. Gerbrandt is right about the Academy being out of step, he’s just a little fuzzy on the details.

However, does adding five more slots to accommodate these films really accomplish anything? Sure, now five more films can say they were nominated for Best Picture, but it took a rules change to do so. It’s like playing a game of pick-up basketball and instead of only having five people on your team you have ten, only the final five never get a chance to play. How will this be any different?

Photo: Disney/Pixar

Over on Twitter, Pixar fansite UpcomingPixar.com posted a tweet saying, “What do you think about the decision to have 10 noms for Best Pic at the 2010 Oscars? I’m ecstatic because Up could be a serious contender!” Not only do I think Up is a serious contender, I think Up is a lock for a nomination now considering the dismissal of Ratatouille and WALL•E the past two years, but we aren’t talking about being a serious contender for winning Best Picture, just merely getting a nomination. When the rules are changed to accommodate the masses is there anything to actually get excited about? It’s like getting a trophy for being a runner-up. Worthless.

RATINGS

Obviously, appeasing the masses is the real key to this decision, not nostalgia. By making sure films liked by general audiences have a better chance at a nomination and will then be represented at the big show is sure to increase interest.

Ratings for this year’s Oscars telecast were an improvement on the year prior by more than 4 million people. 36.3 million watched as Slumdog took the crown compared to the year prior when No Country for Old Men beat out Juno, Atonement, Michael Clayton and There Will be Blood. Just imagine how many more people would have watched had The Dark Knight and WALL•E been nominated, two films that managed to achieve artistic, critical and commercial appeal.

Can you believe the five Best Picture nominees in 2009, at the height of their widest release, only saw 9,121 theaters while The Dark Knight and WALL•E alone saw 8,358? Only a 763-theater differential and we’re playing five-on-two here… Don’t even get me started with critical ratings and box-office success because it will be hard for those five Best Picture candidates to compete with $757+ million at the domestic box-office and two films that scored 94% and 96% at RottenTomatoes.

ADVERTISING

So a ratings bump is an obvious reason and with higher ratings comes higher commercial appeal for a show that depends on advertising. The Academy’s total revenue for 2008 was $81.7 million according to the “Los Angeles Times” and of that figure $73.7 million came as a result of the Oscars.

The “Los Angeles Times” goes on to say of that $81.7 million, the Academy spends $31.1 million to stage the Academy Awards, Oscar luncheons and the Governors Ball. The excess revenue is hugely important to the organization, helping it to sponsor an array of public events and exhibits, and pay for restoration work, film archives, financial grants to other institutions, student contests, screenwriting competitions and science and technology programs.

So, when the rate for a 30-second commercial in the Oscar telecast dropped to below $1 million for the first time since 1998 this year, according to the Nielsen Co., something needed to be done. The Academy had already changed the rules to allow studios to buy one 30-second commercial slot to show a trailer for one of their films and yesterday’s move simply appears to be stage two.

WHAT WILL BE THE RESULT?

What will be the result of the change? Obviously, this is the big question. It’s tough to say if it is a good move or a bad move until we actually see some results. My snap judgment is to say I don’t like it because it lessens the value of a Best Picture nomination by half. I remember last year trying to actually put together a list of top ten films and having an extremely hard time doing it. I would argue most years don’t actually churn out ten Best Picture caliber films… that is, unless the Academy is going to open up and embrace some foreign language pictures in the category, but who are we kidding? And for those of you wondering if movies like Star Trek or The Hangover now have a shot, you are kidding yourself. If a movie wasn’t thought of as a possible contender before it won’t be one now.

Had ten nominations been available last year what five additional films would have joined Slumdog Millionaire, Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Reader?

Photo: Warner Bros., Disney/Pixar, Fox Searchlight, Miramax, Weinstein Co., Paramount Vantage

I believe The Dark Knight, WALL•E and Doubt would have been shoo-ins. Beyond that I see possibilities with The Wrestler and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. I also think we can look at films such as Revolutionary Road, Gran Torino and Happy-Go-Lucky. But at this point what are we really talking about? We’re talking about people saying things such as, “It was just an honor to be nominated.”

Last year Slumdog Millionaire was going to win. Everyone knew that and the addition of five additional nominees wouldn’t have changed things. But to add to that, while Slumdog appeared to have an insurmountable charge behind it, what about years where the winner isn’t so clear-cut? Such as… I don’t know… the way 2009 is looking so far.

So far I would say The Hurt Locker and Up are the first two Best Picture contenders of 2009. I am seeing Public Enemies tonight and it may be added to that list in less than 24 hours, but we’ll have to wait and see. What are we looking at beyond those three?

Daniel Day-Lewis and Judi Dench in Nine

Photo: Weinstein Co.

Clint Eastwood’s Invictus and Rob Marshall’s Nine are two films I would pencil in blind. I think Mira Nair and Hilary Swank teaming for Amelia would be a good bet and with ten slots open I don’t see how Matt Damon in Greengrass’s Green Zone or Soderbergh’s The Informant doesn’t take up at least one of them. We also can’t forget about the long-delayed The Road.

Then there are the smaller possibilities. Lionsgate has established a film festival charge with Precious and Jane Campion’s return with Bright Star sounds promising. An Education built some early steam from the festival circuit and wouldn’t it be a nice shock to see the Academy support something as off-the-wall as Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (releasing on Oct. 23 by the way) sounds like it is?

The blockbusters that should gain traction begin with James Cameron’s Avatar, a film that may likely be a top contender without the additional slots, we’ll have to wait and see. Scorsese’s Shutter Island may now stand a bigger chance, and perhaps Peter Jackson’s Lovely Bones will impress.

Finally, I can’t leave off the Coen brothers with A Serious Man, Jason Reitman’s Up In the Air and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Isn’t guessing without a net fun?

With this news I need to finally get cracking on opening up The Contenders section of the site, but for now I will sit back and listen to what you have to say. Like it or not, things have gotten interesting and if nothing else it makes for great conversation.

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