Mark Harris makes a pretty good case for why the Academy’s decision to expand the Best Picture race from five to ten, then from five to an indiscriminate number (so far, nine for three years in a row, probably always will be nine) has squeezed out diversity in the various categories, meaning, the only nominees come from Best Picture contenders – but I disagree with his premise, which I’ll explain after the jump:
“Some might argue that all the difference demonstrates is that this year, all of the talent was concentrated in a small handful of movies — but that’s true in a bad year, not in a good one. And before the rule change, “bad year” vs. “good year” didn’t make much of a difference. Between 1984 and 2008, an average of 18.3 movies were represented in the top eight categories each years — sometimes as many as 22, and never fewer than 16. A drop in the last two years, first to 14 and then to 12, can’t be written off by dismissing the quality of the movies that were available to nominate; it represents the encroachment of an all-or-nothing mentality that has, I would argue, been fueled by the Academy’s misguided approach to its biggest prize.”
It’s a great piece but I disagree with Mark for two specific reasons. The first, in watching Oscar history I have found that, generally speaking, the branches have picked contenders from the pool of Best Picture. This was true when there were five, true when there were ten, and true now. The reason I think it looks worse now is that they nominate, by default, their favorite films. They pick contenders in the various branches from their favorite films. Long gone are the days when the Academy’s cinematographers, for instance, pick the year’s best in cinematography. It almost always has come from the pool of Best Picture contenders. The expanding of five to an indiscriminate number still gives voters five slots for Best Picture. This is what they did since the 1940s when they started having only five nominees. Voters don’t have to put in ten contenders now. They only have to put five.
What has hurt the race more, in my opinion, was switching from ten to an indiscriminate number, and the preferential ballot. When Oscar voters had to pick ten contenders instead of five you saw some wonderful things happen in the Best Picture lineup. You saw movies like Winter’s Bone and The Kids Are All Right put in the race. Movies like District 9 could get in. Once they decided (after two years) to make it easier on voters who complained that ten was too many, the five slots mean that you’re looking at the passionate favorites of Academy members. And in this way, I agree with Harris. That narrow focus has never been good.
The other problem is the industry that has exploded around watching Oscar. As one of those who really helped launch that industry, it is hypocritical for me to complain but I think making it such a competitive race that is watched and talked about and measured from early in the year has caused voters to all feel like they’re part of the one big contest: what movie is best of the year.
That means that Emma Thompson was tossed for Saving Mr. Banks because it didn’t have Best Picture heat anymore. Or that Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker were tossed because The Butler didn’t have that heat. I would bet that if you whittled Best Picture back down to five it will still look the same. The contest is the contest. At some point, the pendulum will shift the way it did when the SAG had to come out publicly and announce that their ensemble prize was not meant as a stand-in for Best Picture.
And so it goes. Check out Mark’s full article here.