A Modest Proposal For Finally Fixing the Oscars
The film world awoke this morning to news that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had reformulated its Best Picture Oscar rules for the second time in as many years, allowing for anywhere from five to 10 nominees depending on a film's percentage of first-place votes. This is brilliant. It will also fail to fix what's fundamentally wrong with the Oscars.
As a fairly invested member of the Academy Awards peanut gallery, I spend a lot of time between September and January watching studios, publicists and potential nominees jockey for position in various races. And if last year's Oscar index here at Movieline proved anything, it's that every category is a race. With two or three or occasionally four exceptions in each category, films and talent exist on bubbles for weeks if they're lucky, months if they're good. When the Best Picture category doubled to 10 nominations in 2009, skeptics dismissed the Academy's move as a populist stroke that diluted the value of a nomination. Maybe, maybe not. But the larger category did expand the bubble, thus inclining even more feverish competition among studios and distributors for three or four spots not already claimed by foregone favorites. Last year there were even fewer: Among serious contenders, only The Town was really left on the outside looking in when nominations were announced.
According to the Academy, the new conditions -- which require a minimum 5 percent of first-place votes to earn a nomination (see you later, Winter's Bone and The Kids Are All Right) -- would have yielded Best Picture crops ranging from five to nine nominees between 2001 and 2008. Can you imagine? This is why, as an observer, anyway, I love this rule change. Campaigners no longer have an eighth, ninth or especially a 10th slot to fall back on. This essentially wipes out the Inception Exception for any given year's Academy-anointed summer blockbuster, but that should be a good thing, because let's face it: Nothing necessarily deserves Best Picture representation. There's no reason for some 3-percent favorite to be taking up space at the Kodak Theater when all anyone wants is to get the show over with and move on to the afterparties. We always bitch and moan about how little merit plays into nominations, and now we'll have the most transparent evidence to date of just what the Academy thinks of those films on the aforementioned bubble.
Taking the new rule a step further, it really is is kind of an honor now to be nominated, because there's more evidence than ever that some segment of the Academy population really does think you have the Best Picture of the year. Of course, the top vote-getter is hoarding 20 percent of the first-place nods to your 5.5 or whatever, and you were surely receiving at least a few top marks under the old system, but still. If you really want to restore the luster to a Best Picture nomination, this is a totally reasonable way to do it.
Ultimately, though, the January Fix illuminates the Academy's biggest problem: The remainder of Oscar season. It's too long, the winners are foregone conclusions by the end of of the guild awards in mid-February, and it all comes down to two films anyway -- the favorite of which is generally guaranteed to affirm the Academy's insularity and lousy, predictable taste. Even if we take the Academy executives at their word and accept this week's change as a quality-control measure, they have yet to do anything about the anticlimax that the Oscar ceremony and its telecast have become. No hip hosts, blockbuster nominees or envelopes recycled from McDonald's french-fry cartons can neutralize the tedium of a four-hour show whose "surprises" are preordained from weeks earlier.
If the Academy really wants to reinvigorate the Oscars, it should take the new rules one radical step further: Make the Best Picture nominations the actual awards. Announce nominees in all the other categories if we must; at least then prospective winners know to show up, though a simple invitation would serve the same purpose. Present a show that recognizes the year in movies, punctuated throughout by Best Picture contenders -- much as the Oscarcast is now, except, you know, intriguing. Studios and Melissa Leo would still get to have their campaigns, and the Oscar economy of ads, swag, fêtes and other commodities could continue accordingly. But voters wouldn't face two rounds of endless haranguing and the proscribed choices represented by eight or nine films -- films that, as the new rules ensure, they already voted for anyway. As mentioned, if we're to believe the data cited today, "the average percentage of first place votes received by the top vote-getting movie was 20.5." The average! Even the finals' preferential ballot isn't going to derail a Best Picture front-runner with an "average" first-place vote percentage over 20.
I'm sure someone's posited or suggested this idea before, and I'm sure plenty of excuses have surfaced among Academy members and observers alike as to how and why it won't or can't work. But there's a reason the current nominee system evolved from the first Academy Awards in 1929, when winners were announced three months in advance: It's boring to know who's going to win. How else could an event featuring the distribution of one of the world's most coveted, mythologized cultural prizes become such a bloated, disposable slog? It has basically regressed to the smug standards of 80 years ago without even knowing it; the utmost element of surprise one can expect anymore is just how bad the host(s) will be.
This rule revision is a sign that the Academy knows Oscar can do better. But that much is apparent to anyone with eyes. The real, tougher question is: Can Oscar go further? I'd bet it can, if only because the instinct to survive is stronger than any tradition. Which isn't to say it couldn't move too late, in which case, oh well. I suppose we'll always have the Golden Globes.