Best Pictures

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This week, the Academy decided to feature ten, not five, Best Picture nominees. Furthermore, the show is not expected to be lengthened – it’s already quite long – which means that some of the “lesser” categories, like the shorts, makeup, art direction, sound mixing, and so on, will probably be eliminated altogether from the broadcast.

This announcement taps into the perceived vs. actual nature of the Best Picture award. The Oscar goes to the producers, ostensibly for being able to pull the thing off, and therefore has more to do with the whole package and a little less to do with the individual quality of the acting, storytelling, directing, and so on. It’s the only award for which all members of the Academy may nominate and vote.

But I have a hunch that people who watch the Academy Awards to see their favorite movie win typically aren’t thinking of the whole package. Instead, they loved the movie for its story and the way it made them feel. And that’s why Slumdog Millionaire was a popular winner – it wasn’t the best film of the year, but it was the one that a great number of people people liked watching (and in all fairness, it had to be pretty hard to produce, with the language and cultural barriers). In a year of more excellent but more depressing films, Slumdog was something a little different.

But do you think ten American pictures are produced each year that actually deserve the nomination? The Academy’s president, Sid Ganis, remarked that “having 10 Best Picture nominees is going to allow Academy voters to recognize and include some of the fantastic movies that often show up in the other Oscar categories, but have been squeezed out of the race for the top prize.” I wonder about that; a film with a great story but mediocre directing/acting/younameit should not be nominated for Best Picture just because people liked it. Does this allow for more “pretty good” films – movies that don’t have the whole package – to make it into that slot?

Obviously, this is an economic decision on the part of the Academy. Last year’s Oscars were widely considered to have short-shrifted The Dark Knight; personally, I might have added The Wrestler, Rachel Getting Married, Doubt, WALL-E and Revolutionary Road to that list. (I also would have left The Reader off entirely.) Allowing more films to be in contention for the top spot could, theoretically, result in more viewers.

On the bright side, this pretty much guarantees that Pixar will get their first Best Picture nomination this year, unless something goes horribly wrong.

What do you think? Should the Academy have kept it to five nominations? Are there enough movies each year produced by American companies that are worthy to fill those ten slots? And if you could add five nominees to last year’s slate, what would they be?

  • http://filmchatblog.blogspot.com/ Peter T Chattaway

    Do movies have to be produced by American companies in order to be nominated for Best Picture? My understanding was that any movie could be nominated in that category, provided that it was released in certain cities between certain dates. Of course, movies with an American connection are more likely to be noticed by American voters, but as far as I’m aware, that’s just a matter of habit, kind of like how comedies, documentaries, animated films and foreign-language films tend to be ignored in that category even though they are perfectly eligible for the award.

  • http://www.alissawilkinson.com Alissa Wilkinson

    You may be right, but as you know, the Academy isn’t (ahem) known for their vast knowledge of foreign films, so I doubt that’s likely to actually change any time soon.

  • http://mss.typepad.com Michael

    The move to 10 nominees is largely a marketing ploy. In an era of declining theater attendance (and in an age in which people’s attention is divided among films, the internet, reading, YouTube, downloadable films, Netflix, Twitter, and so on) the MPAA needed to do something to increase revenue for studios and also wrest a little control back over media and the culture. Attention paid to a film and ticket sales always increase when that film receives a nomination for best picture, and so by increasing the number of nominees, the MPAA is directly trying to influence success at the box office. To me, it’s no surprise — after all, the AFI 100 list, to take one example, is largely a promotional tool. The MPAA now has another one.

    I bothered most, though, by the larger cultural implications. If the 10 nominees by and large are films made in the U.S., that will only further entrench the hegemony that American film still has over film culture, at least in this country. Plus, there’s still the conceptual problem of having a “contest” like the Academy Awards anyway, made all the more suspect by the underhanded ways in which studios try to influence voting decisions. I’m against these kinds of “artistic” contests to begin with, but if we’re going to have any, a shorter list is better than a longer one.

  • Hannah

    The Oscars are already like 10 hours long. If they stick with 10 nominees I will never be able to stay awake through the orgy of self-congratulatory blather.

  • http://filmchatblog.blogspot.com/ Peter T Chattaway

    Alissa:

    I guess it all depends on how you define “foreign film”. When I was a guest on a radio show, talking about the Oscars several years ago, a guy phoned in to complain about all the “American crap” that we were focusing on, and I replied that as many as three of that year’s Best Picture nominees were arguably “foreign”: Moulin Rouge! was Australian (with an Aussie director and leading lady), The Fellowship of the Ring was a Kiwi adaptation of a British novel (with Aussies and others involved as well), and Gosford Park was essentially a British story (even if it was directed by an American). Those films were all English-language, of course, but “English” and “American” are not the same thing.

    In addition, the past decade and a half has seen foreign-language films such as Il Postino, Life Is Beautiful, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Letters from Iwo Jima get nominated for Best Picture as well. And let’s not forget Babel and Slumdog Millionaire, significant (if not majority) portions of which were in foreign languages as well. (And of course, Slumdog Millionaire actually won the award this year.) Granted, many if not all of those films were produced, at least in part, by American companies — but that just shows, again, how fuzzy the definition of “foreign film” is.

    Michael:

    I doubt very much that the Academy made its decision for the studios’ benefit. If anything, the studios are whining now that they will be expected to mount even more Oscar campaigns, and thereby spend many more advertising dollars, just to keep their top stars and filmmakers happy. It is doubtful that these films will earn enough from their nominations to make up for the extra expenditure — especially since, in a world with ten Best Picture nominees instead of five, being nominated won’t mean as much any more.

    I mean, as Lou Lumenick has pointed out, only one film in the past 30 years or so has won Best Picture without being nominated for Best Director, i.e. Driving Miss Daisy (1989), and in that movie’s case, it at least had more nominations than any other movie released that year. And as others have pointed out, only one movie in the past 30 years or so has won Best Picture without being nominated for Best Film Editing, i.e. Ordinary People (1980). But both of those categories — Best Director and Best Film Editing — will continue to get by with just five nominees each. So just because there are more Best Picture nominees next year doesn’t mean there will be more genuine contenders for the top prize.

  • http://www.alissawilkinson.com Alissa Wilkinson

    So, then, Peter, the original question: what do you think about the Academy’s decision?

  • http://filmchatblog.blogspot.com/ Peter T Chattaway

    Well, like I say, if you increase the number of nominees, then it doesn’t mean as much for a film to be a Best Picture nominee any more.

    It remains to be seen what sort of films will benefit from the expansion: more actor-driven films like The Wrestler? more box-office hits like The Dark Knight? more animated films like WALL-E? more documentaries like Fahrenheit 9/11? to cite just a number of films that seriously tried to get Best Picture nominations but didn’t. (I tried to think of a recent comedy that had actively campaigned for a Best Picture nomination and failed to get one, but I can’t think of any right now.) So it’s too early to say what effect this expansion will have on the Academy’s nominations, and thus on the ratings for the awards show itself.

    My biggest concern is the possibility that the so-called “lesser” categories will be further marginalized to make room for more movie clips. I’ve always enjoyed the “lesser” categories and the window they open into the inner workings of moviemaking, as well as the profile they give, however briefly, to some of the more obscure films out there (short films, documentaries, foreign-language films, etc.). It would be odd, to say the least, if a celebration of the industry turned its back on the people who keep that industry going.

  • http://mss.typepad.com Michael

    Peter — interesting points, and I think you’re right to say that the studios will whine (if they aren’t whining already!), although I don’t know if that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some motivation for the studios. A critic friend suggests that, at least in the past, a nomination could bring in upwards of an extra $10 million in revenue. That’s probably changed (and it’s anyone’s guess what the costs of additional promotion are), but in the least the change means added exposure, and my hunch is that this is something the MPAA wants to give to itself and to the industry. Having said that, even if there’s something else driving the doubling of nominees, the history of the MPAA and the awards system doesn’t give me much hope. If the 10 nominees do begin to include more films made outside the U.S., they’re likely to be in the vein of films like Slumdog — in other words, hardly the cream of the crop of international cinema, but the very thing that could be sold (to return to that issue) to U.S. audiences. Of course, the issue goes far beyond the awards “competition” itself or the number of nominees — it lies in patterns of distribution, the nature of the industry press, the dominant film culture, and so on and so on. The MPAA is the tip of a very large iceberg. :)