If you follow this site, you know that since 2011 we’ve been pushing for the Academy to expand the number of Best Picture back to a solid and consistent ten nominees. We talk about it every year, each time we see blank slots left unfilled and a movie that should have gotten in didn’t because of the way the tabulation math determines the nominees. Quick history:
From the Academy’s inception to 1943 they always had more than five nominees. A random numbers, sometimes as many as twelve, before settling on an even ten in 1936.
From 1943-2009 the Best Picture category was a solid five nominees. Five Best Director nominees, five Best Picture. That meant that Picture and Director tended to be united winners.
2009-2010 – back the solid 10 as they were in the late 1930s
2011 to present day – five nominees slots on the ballot, but the accountants use a formula to count spill-over votes in order to name a number that theoretically varies between 5 and 10, depending on how many films reach a threshold of popularity among Academy members. So far that has never resulted in more than 8 or 9 nominees. For better or worse, the mismatch between Picture and Director nominees has tended to increase the likelihood of a split between the Picture and Director awards:
2009 – The Hurt Locker/Kathryn Bigelow
2010 – The King’s Speech/Tom Hooper
2011 – The Artist/Michel Hazanvicious
2012 – Argo/Ang Lee, Life of Pi
2013 – 12 Years a Slave/Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
2014 – Birdman/Alejandro G. Inarritu
2015 – Spotlight/Inarritu, the Revenant
2016 – Moonlight/Damien Chazelle, La La Land
2017 – The Shape of Water/Guillero del Toro
There’s now a 50/50 chance of a split, but if you went back ten years prior to 2009, you’d see fewer splits occur (a 33% chance):
2008-Slumdog Millionaire/Danny Boyle
2007-No Country for Old Men/Coens
2006-The Departed/Martin Scorsese
2005-Crash/Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain
2004-Million Dollar Baby/Clint Eastwood
2002-A Beautiful Mind/Ron Howard
2001-Chicago/Roman Polanski, The Pianist
2000-Gladiator/Steven Soderbergh, Traffic
1999-American Beauty/Sam Mendes
1998-Shakespeare in Love/Spielberg, Saving Private Ryan
The preferential ballot and expanded list of nominees has favored splits, win which the more visionary director takes Best Director, and the film that is more broadly liked takes Best Picture. Some believe that going back to five and five would simply solve all of their problems. As if there were never any dissatisfaction at all prior to 2009.
The decision this year to add a best popular film category has clearly broken a lot of hearts. My own heart is beating steady but I realize that I don’t have a lot of company in this respect. I believe in change. I believe cultural institutions adapt or die off if they cease to reflect cultural changes. I don’t have a problem with something that pulls the rug out from under tradition. But I also recognize that it seems to have upset the loyal core of people who have lovingly supported the same abiding Oscar tradition for as long as anyone can remember.
So perhaps a middle ground can be found. It’s possible that the Oscars could solve their problem by simply doing what the first intended in 2009, and follow the example of the Producers Guild — establish the number of nominees at an even ten and literally take the ballot-parsing accountants out of the equation.
AMPAS members who don’t believe there were ten good movies in a year can simply leave as many of the lower five slots empty as suits their disposition. Following this simple method, the PGA had shown no problem nominating popular films like Straight Outta Compton, Wonder Woman, Gone Girl, Deadpool. With those five extra slots maintained on the ballots, Producers Guild voters have more flexibility than the Academy does. I suspect that if the Academy went back to that ballot, the Oscars could bring in more popular films — as they did in 2009 and 2010 — while at the same time allowing more room to honor movies directed by women, maybe foreign films.
The downside is that they can’t promote this fix as a way to encourage broadening the Oscar’s appeal, because at the end of the day it still comes down to the Academy’s taste, rather than the public’s. There is always the chance that the ten Best Picture nominees with be more of the same, only twice as much. That’s why I still believe that selecting the public out of the process has been, I think, one of the Academy’s biggest mistakes in the wake of the way the Oscars have evolved over the past twenty years. The Academy Awards were never meant to do what they do today — reflect what the critics think, which in turn determines which movies are served as a pre-selected cart of delicacies to the voters.
Returning to an even ten nominees wouldl certainly tamp down some of the grousing that clearly is not going to die down any time soon. Whenever there is any news about the Academy, this thorny topic will be the first focus, which could ultimately distract from the purpose of what the awards should be.
Me personally, I welcome the introduction of new categories for the Oscars. From a PR perspective, however, the Academy might want to implement a safer and less factious compromise heading into the season.