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The State of the Race: Will Best Picture Ever Be More or Less Than Nine?

As we head into another Oscar year we are once again faced with nine Best Picture nominees. We all know it will be nine because ever since the Academy changed their rules from Best Picture from five to ten and then from ten to an arbitrary number between 5 and 9 it has been nine – for three consecutive years.

That’s because there are so many good movies every year vying for the Best Picture race that they stuff in as many as possible, often the ones with more passionate support ruling the day. But first, a little history.

Back in the early days of Oscar they had not yet introduced the solid five categories for Best Picture, Best Director, etc. There were often many more in these categories. There was a brief period of time when there were a solid ten Best Picture nominees – 1937 through 1944. Going My Way, in 1945, was the first film to win with five nominees. Five nominees would rule all the way up to 2008, after The Dark Knight failed to earn a Best Picture nomination.

In 2008, the Academy was slammed by fans and critics for failing to nominate the Dark Knight and putting in The Reader instead. Typical Academy move, given their history, but one that really seemed to finally crack open the heavy door of history. In order to evolve a bit, they decided to expand their nominees to a solid ten. Members would now have ten slots for their favorite films of the year. It’s easy call to imagine putting in five of your typical Academy movies, but then perhaps having the freedom to include films you might not ordinarily include on such a limited ballot.

Having a solid ten did more than that, it turns out. It included films like The Kids Are All Right and Winter’s Bone, District 9 and Inception. These films might have struggled to get in with only five slots on the nomination ballot.

2009 (82nd)
The Hurt Locker (PGA, DGA)
Avatar (PGA, DGA)
Inglourious Basterds (PGA, DGA)
Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire** (PGA, DGA)
District 9 (PGA)
An Education** (PGA)
Up (PGA)
Up in the Air (PGA)
The Blind Side**
A Serious Man
Star Trek  (PGA)
Invictus (PGA)

2010 (83rd)
The King’s Speech (PGA, DGA)
Black Swan**(PGA, DGA)
The Fighter (PGA, DGA)
Inception (PGA, DGA)
The Social Network (PGA, DGA)
The Kids Are All Right**
Toy Story 3 (PGA)
True Grit (PGA)
Winter’s Bone** (PGA)
127 Hours (PGA)
The Town (PGA)

**films with females as the protagonist

But members began complaining that ten was too many. They wanted to only put down five, as they’d been doing for 65 years or so. The members got their wish because in 2011, the Academy once again changed things up, as they explained in their press release:

With the help of PricewaterhouseCoopers, we’ve been looking not just at what happened over the past two years, but at what would have happened if we had been selecting 10 nominees for the past 10 years,” explained Academy President Tom Sherak, who noted that it was retiring Academy Executive Director Bruce Davis who recommended the change, first to Sherak and incoming CEO Dawn Hudson and then to the governors.

During the period studied, the average percentage of first place votes received by the top vote-getting movie was 20.5. After much analysis by Academy officials, it was determined that 5 percent of first place votes should be the minimum in order to receive a nomination, resulting in a slate of anywhere from 5 to 10 movies.

“In studying the data, what stood out was that Academy members had regularly shown a strong admiration for more than five movies,” said Davis. “A Best Picture nomination should be an indication of extraordinary merit. If there are only eight pictures that truly earn that honor in a given year, we shouldn’t feel an obligation to round out the number.”

If this system had been in effect from 2001 to 2008 (before the expansion to a slate of 10), there would have been years that yielded 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 nominees.

The final round of voting for Best Picture will continue to employ the preferential system, regardless of the number of nominees, to ensure that the winning picture has the endorsement of more than half of the voters.

When they changed from 5 to a random number, however, the results have always been a solid 9, which begs the question, why did they bother changing from ten in the first place? What happened when they changed their policy this most recent time they effectively removed what made having an expanding slate good in the first place – the opportunity to include films that would not ordinarily be included.

Though it is a hard concept to grasp, when voters have only five choices for Best Picture they default to sentimental, passionate pics and often omit films that could be thought of as genre pictures, for instance. We saw this the year Dragon Tattoo was up for the Best Picture Oscar. It would have gotten in, most likely, with ten.

Now, what you see is the maximum amount of nominees allowed under the current system but choices that still reflect the Academy’s overall taste. Diversity is mostly absent, and certainly, any opportunity for genre films.

What we’re looking at this year is once again, I believe, nine nominees. I guess my question is, why not leave it to a solid ten? We also have to ask, is there any sort of problem at all? Are the best movies still being represented? Are there so many good movies aimed at the Oscar race now because they have nowhere else to go that these slates represent an embarrassment of riches anyway?

What you are less likely to see now:
–Animated films nominated for Best Picture
–Films with women in the lead or directed by women
–Genre movies

Why? Because voters are only putting down five on their ballots. Think of any grown man who would confidently put an animated film on their top five, for instance. With ten slots that would be an easier choice. But with five?

2011 (84th) – 9
The Artist (PGA, DGA)
The Descendants (PGA, DGA)
Midnight in Paris (PGA, DGA)
The Help** (PGA)
Hugo (PGA)
Moneyball (PGA)
War Horse (PGA)
The Tree of Life
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo** (PGA, DGA)
Bridesmaids (PGA)
The Ides of March (PGA)

2012 (85th) – 9
Argo (PGA, DGA)
Les Misérables (PGA, DGA)
Life of Pi (PGA, DGA)
Lincoln (PGA, DGA)
Zero Dark Thirty** (PGA, DGA)
Django Unchained (PGA)
Beasts of the Southern Wild** (PGA)
Silver Linings Playbook (PGA)
Skyfall (PGA)
Moonrise Kingdom (PGA)

2013 (86th) – 9
12 Years a Slave (PGA, DGA)
American Hustle (PGA, DGA)
Captain Phillips (PGA, DGA)
Gravity** (PGA, DGA)
The Wolf of Wall Street (PGA, DGA)
Nebraska (PGA)
Dallas Buyers Club (PGA)
Her (PGA)
Blue Jasmine** (PGA)
Saving Mr. Banks** (PGA)

**films with females as the protagonist

+The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo holds two records. The first, it remains the only film since the Academy expanded their slate from five to either ten or the new random number to earn both the PGA and DGA and not get a Best Picture nomination.  It was also the first film since 1968 (46 years) to win Best Editing without winning any other Oscars and without having a Best Picture nomination. 

In conclusion, what I think will happen this year is that nine will be nominated again. The slate for Best Picture is already looking promising, with several movies popping up in Cannes already and with Telluride waiting around the corner.

Also, according to people like Steve Pond at The Wrap, it is very nearly impossible to ever have ten again. It is an impossibility.  The way the Academy tested the past by using the preferential system to get a random number between 5 and 9 simply doesn’t apply when you have hungry publicists and strategists competing for the top prize.

The Academy would probably do better simply to admit defeat and change it back to ten.  Or else go back to five.  Whether five is better than nine isn’t a question I can answer.  I believe we are living in a time when the Oscar race is the only end goal for films aimed at adults, or independent films.  Hollywood seems to relying more and more on the tentpole paradigm, and films aimed at the international audiences, namely China and India.  The Oscars, though, still provide a safe haven for films that exist purely for art’s sake. All the better if the Oscar race can earn these films more at the box office to keep this industry thriving.

Still, sooner or later they’re going to have to accept that disproportionate number of effects-driven films, either with its own category (like Best Effects Driven films) or a radical change of preferences to include these films.