The awards world was hit with a bombshell on Tuesday afternoon after news broke that a “significant faction” of the Academy wants the Best Picture field returned to just five nominees. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the old guard feels the current system has made the honor less prestigious and are using the low ratings of last month's telecast as proof that the expanded field doesn't work. The issue may be addressed as soon as the next Board of Governors meeting on March 24. Let me take a breath and prepare my reaction while you ponder this Hail Mary of a justification for a moment.
(O.K., I'm ready.)
First, let's discuss the “prestige” argument, shall we?
In 2009 the Best Picture field was increased to 10 nominees because of the horror (i.e. embarrassment) that the out-of-touch membership had snubbed popular and critically acclaimed blockbusters such as “WALL-E” and “The Dark Knight.” In 2010, after concerns from the membership over movies such as “The Blind Side” making the cut, a formula was put into place that allowed up to, but did not guarantee, 10 nominees. Since that rule modification there have been three years of nine nominees, until this past season when just eight nominees were announced. The voting formula (essentially 5% first place votes are now required) was created to justify the additional nominees by studying the voting patterns of the previous 10 Best Picture races. Moreover, there should have been no further proof that this change worked by the fact that just eight nominees were selected this year. Not nine, not 10, but eight.
But, please, “significant faction,” tell us which of this year's eight films made the honor less prestigious.
“Birdman?” We're gonna assume this one is safe since it was your Best Picture winner.
“Boyhood?” The most critically acclaimed film of the year earned nominations from all the major branches (Actors, Directors, Writers, Editors). That isn't a stain on the Best Picture legacy is it?
“American Sniper?” The hope that the Clint Eastwood's blockbuster could actually win was one of the only reasons many people watched the telecast. It also earned Acting, Writing and Editing nods.
“The Imitation Game?” Harvey's hit also found love in every major branch. You sure you want this one out of the mix?
“The Grand Budapest Hotel?” The critical and box office hit earned nominations for Directing, Editing and Screenplay and tied “Birdman” with nine nods overall. You wouldn't have wanted it to earn just eight, would you? That would look slightly silly, no? (Although, honestly, if it meant Wes Anderson would have won Original Screenplay, we'd live with this snub.)
“The Theory of Everything?” Well, it didn't land a Directing nod, but found love everywhere else. Members loved this one enough to select Eddie Redmayne for Best Actor over industry legend Michael Keaton. How could “Theory” joining the club diminish a Best Picture nomination?
“Whiplash?” Another movie the membership adored, which won Editing, earned Acting and Screenwriting nods and took three Oscars overall. This movie is so beloved that decades from now it might actually be held in higher regard than all the other nominees (we're not kidding).
“Selma?” Can you imagine being a member of The Academy and experiencing a January and February where “Selma” did not earn a Best Picture nomination? Seriously, you want to go there on this one?
This argument is a fallacy. Reviewing the past four years there is only one film that a majority of critics and Academy members would not consider a “modern classic”: “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” And guess what, Academy? As an organization you've actually picked worse nominees when you just had five choices, and in this century, too! Do we want to reflect back on “Crash,” “Finding Neverland,” “Seabiscuit” or “Chocolat?” Because if someone wants to seriously defend those picks I'm all ears.
Frankly, the expanded field has only increased the prestige of the award. Would “District 9,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “Winter's Bone,” “Moneyball,” “The Tree of Life,” “Amour” (!), “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Her” or “Dallas Buyers Club” have made the cut? Probably not, and that would be a shame. The attention their deserved Oscar nominations received helped those amazing films find larger audiences and inspire new filmmakers around the globe. It made many cinephiles who considered the Oscars a joke look at them in a completely different light. The idea that the current system has cast a pall over the integrity of the Academy Awards is ridiculous and backward thinking.
Oh, wait. There's more.
The other argument being thrown about is that because there were so many nominees (some of which were relatively unknown to the general public this particular season) it contributed to this year's ratings downturn. Again, this is grasping at straws. The eight nominees had nothing to do with the lower viewership numbers. You can absolutely blame ABC for not hyping “American Sniper” as a potential winner enough in their promo spots (truth). You can rightfully blame show producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron for yet another old school telecast short on humor and for selecting a host that just wasn't a big enough draw (sorry Neil Patrick Harris). You can try to blame some of the world's biggest stars for not appearing in enough prestige pictures to be players in the acting races.* You cannot, however, blame the Best Picture nominees that were selected from one of the worst box office years in recent memory (Oh, right. Everyone forgot about that, didn't they?).
*2014's show had Leonardo DiCaprio, Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Lawerence and Sandra Bullock all with a shot to win. Oh, and Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie hanging out in the audience. 2013's featured Hugh Jackman, Denzel Washington, Jessica Chastain, Robert DeNiro, Anne Hathaway and Jennifer Lawrence. Yeah, those were the days.
The truth is 2015's Oscar telecast had a great Best Picture race and fantastic acceptance speeches, but little star power. If Ellen DeGeneres had come back the ratings still would have been down, but the drop would not have been as significant and this argument would have even less merit than it already does.
Lastly, returning to five nominees will only exacerbate The Academy's already very public problem with diversity. This isn't conjecture. It is simply the truth. And if the naysayers can't see what a can of worms that would create then Oscar really is light years from where it should be.
If history teaches us anything, it's that those who want to go backward will jump on any opportunity to do so, even when it's unwarranted. And, sadly, that appears to be the case with a certain “faction” in the movie industry's most powerful club. Here's hoping cooler heads and smarter minds prevail.