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.

2 thoughts on “Changes to the Academy Awards”

  1. As someone who loves to watch movies, I think this is a good change. One the one hand, I’ve heard some complaints that this will make it harder for people to see all of the nominated films. I admit this is possible, as I know there are probably people who have a habit of watching all 5 films and doubling that seems daunting- especially since the bulk of the nominees are traditionally released later in the year and seeing them means ponying up $7 to $15 dollars each for a theater ticket.

    However, I think the net benefit will be good. With 10 nominees, chances are that at least one or two films that you planned to see even without the Oscar nod is included. Which is really the overall point, to increase the chances that most people will have seen at least one film and have some stake in the outcome.

    That said, I’m not entirely sure it will substantially raise the ratings. The biggest problems are that it is very long and it can get tedious (hence the removal of honorary awards and the long speeches and montages that come with them). Having an exceptional host helps and I think Hugh Jackman did his fair share in that department, but I’m not convinced he’s going to be our generation’s Bob Hope or Billy Crystal.

    One thing that I think might really help would be to have some kind of limited run series that builds up Oscar buzz. I hate to say it, but some of the top rated shows are reality competetion series. Obviously, I don’t think we should give America a call in vote on the nominees. But, I have to admit I might tune into So You Think Can Host the Oscars, provided it’s celebrity contestants like Dancing With the Stars. And that could definitely give the non theater going public a chance to have a horse in the race. And you can pepper in special features about the potential nominated films or interviews with nominees. I know it probably sounds kind of hokey, but the only show I know of that gets top ratings for 4 hours a week now is American Idol. And even it breaks that down into two hour or less chunks.

  2. It really depends on what movies get nominated, but I think it’s likely that people who like movies will have seen a couple of the films. I think one of the big issues is that a lot of nominated films don’t really go mainstream, so people have a hard time finding them. I live near a reasonably good movie city, so a lot of movies come here that don’t really get released in a lot of other places. But even then, if I want to see it, I have to make the trek into the city and pay for parking, etc… which can be a bit rough.

    Another thing I hope to see out of this would be that movies that came out earlier in the year get a second look later in the year. A lot of good movies get overlooked because of this (and it might make the studios less likely to overload the end of the year, leading to the possibility of nominated movies being available on DVD, making it easier (and cheaper) for people to see all the movies).

    In any case, I’ve seen over 75-80 from 2008, and I still haven’t seen all 5 nominated movies…

    As far as the length of the ceremony goes, there’s probably a lot of stuff that could be trimmed (or awards that could be combined). I already mentioned that the best animated and best foreign films might not be necessary anymore (because those films now have a better chance at best picture), but there are lots of others. Do we really need both sound mixing and sound editing? Or the three shorts awards. No one sees those, and they take up a good amount of time. Art direction, makeup and costumes could be combined in some way, I’m sure. Perhaps you have another ceremony, like you do for the others. Tape it, and if anything exciting happens, televise it with the Oscars.

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