Thursday, June 25, 2009

Double Trouble

So the Oscar sites have all been on fire today about the Academy's surprise announcement that next year's Oscars will feature ten nominees for Best Picture rather than the five-wide roster the Academy has observed since the 1944 awards. Clearly, the Academy and, by extension, ABC hope that fans of a wider swath of nominated movies will now tune into the struggling telecast as invested fans; less clear is whether the move to a longer field necessitates that Oscar will be less parochial about what kinds of movies it votes onto the center-ring ballot.

Almost as clearly, the studios, distributors, and marketing wings want to give twice as many movies a chance at recouping their multimillion-dollar Oscar nomination campaigns by winning the right to honestly advertise themselves as a "BEST PICTURE NOMINEE" in all capitals in their TV promos, trade ads, and newspaper listings; less clear is whether the post-nomination "bump" is as big as it used to be, and whether doling out twice as many nods will actually diminish the persuasive pull of the "Best Picture" badge to the increasingly few ticket-buyers who even care about that kind of cachet.

Fans of the announcement appear hopeful that Oscar will now have more room to shape a more diverse list of Best Picture nominees, which the homogenizing ballot procedures for Best Picture often dilute into a narrow stable of consensus picks and fall/winter studio darlings with big campaign budgets. Less clear is whether Oscar voters will now get to rank ten films rather than five at the nominating stage—which could lead them into more challenging, off-consensus titles, or could further dumb down the list, since not everyone in AMPAS is as diligent about hunting down ambitious, off-radar titles as a lot of Oscar bloggers are—or whether the final list of ten will still be synthesized by consolidating every voter's preferential list of five.

My 2¢: I'm totally okay with this. Best Picture has always been a highly compromised category, even by the Academy's inherently conservative standards, so I don't really feel like anything's being taken away from me or from Oscar. The Best Picture race functions best as tony advertising, either by making populist fare look "good" to the highbrows or by giving wider mainstream exposure to niche-marketed middlebrow "art"; if twice as many movies can take advantage of that platform, deservedly or otherwise, fine. In a sense, the change will offer an exciting crystal ball into just a bit more of the larger picture of what the members liked.

Most importantly, I don't think we can predict anything with confidence, and certainly not with uniformity, about what kinds of movies will or will not qualify now in the expanded race, which will probably still shift from year to year, based on all the same variables that already shape the yearly cycle as we know and (hate to) love it. I'm sure some years will now yield a more boring list than they otherwise would have; some years will get a spicier variety than the top five would have reflected. We may still get "lone director" nominees (they did in '38, with Angels with Dirty Faces), and there may still be surprising misses (like My Man Godfrey, with its notorious noms for Best Director and all four acting trophies, but no Best Picture citation, despite a ten-wide field).

We still won't know as much as we think we do: if Chocolat had gotten a nod in a ten-wide field, I still would have assumed it was the "tenth" nominee and had no idea the Academy had actually voted it fifth. Even more intriguingly, we may now be privy to more Libeled Ladys and Test Pilots and Ox-Bow Incidents that will newly reveal themselves as fan favorites within Hollywood, even though you wouldn't have known it from their meager nomination tallies across the overall board.

William Goldman never goes out of style: Nobody knows anything. But this hopefully means a slightly bigger party.

As an interactive thought experiment I've drafted what I believe would have been, under the new rules, the ten-wide Best Picture fields during the last ten years—based on an entirely personal and unscientific meld of nominations in other categories, pre-Oscar laurels and buzz, release timing, studio backing, and subjective hunches. To my mind, some of these are much more interesting fields than what we actually saw, some much worse, some about the same. Which serves to me as "proof" that it's not worth cheering or moaning about today's news. Let's just see what happens... though I must admit, this little exercise, in its concreteness, convinces me even further that a wider Best Picture field can only be more interesting for Oscar watchers, even when it means more jaw-dropping inclusions and doubly painful snubs.

But in the meantime, what do you think?

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Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

you've talked me off a ledge! ;)

but i do think you're being generous about what would have made the list in some of these years... and in other cases not so generous. And I agree that 1999 woulda still been a mess BP wise.

one factor of especially discussable note though: i've always assumed that there are some pictures that AMPAS as a whole actually lliked quite a lot that we all assume they hated due to 0 nomination tallies. But what if they actually came in 6th or 7th in nearly all categories? suddenly they're a 1 nomination film and for Best Picture no less.

weird but possibly interesting.

6:13 AM, June 25, 2009  
Blogger Calum Reed said...

I too am a little more optimistic about this than most people. If anything there's definitely going to be more chance of comedy, animated, foreign, and documentary films being acknowledged. I was starting to get depressed that a documentary was never going to make it but I now have a tad more hope.

I definitely think The Incredibles was in the top ten of 2004, and yeah, you're probably right with The Passion, with its Christian following. Probably Doubt would have made it last year too, but I agree with most of your 'experiment' :-)

So are you saying that every voter choosing ten films would make it better? I can see them maybe having the standard five and then a couple of reserve picks. It's definitely gonna give us an idea of how many people watch films beyond the 15-20 baity ones with big campaigns.

6:41 AM, June 25, 2009  
Blogger tim r said...

Only just clocked all this. I'm guessing I may have to write about it, which, looking at the comments on Nat's blog, already slightly scares me.

My initial reaction is Nat-ish, but I agree with you Nick that it seems like unfortunate timing -- this is hardly shaping up to be a banner Oscar year in any other sense.

Loving the game of expanding past years to ten. I totally think Doubt gets in (but not Iris), I totally think Ratatouille gets in as well as WALL.E, and I dread the presence of crap like Geisha/Cinderella Man much more than average stuff like Frost/Nix or The Reader. Also, The Phantom of the Opera? You're right, but yikes.

Nat, I may be emailing you for quotes!

7:05 AM, June 25, 2009  
Blogger Movies with Abe said...

I really liked your idea while reading your blog post that I decided to compile my own lists before looking at yours. On no occasion did we match up 10/10 and only in one case 9/10 (2007). In making my lists, I forgot about the possible power of "Blood Diamond," "In America," and "Catch Me If You Can." I don't agree that "The Matrix" or "Ocean's Eleven" could have made it, though I wasn't following the race as closely then. It would have been cool though.

My discrepancies:
2008: Doubt, Revolutionary Road, and Defiance (not on your list at all) over Changeling, Gran Torino, and The Wrestler

2007: Ratatouille over Bourne

2006: Children of Men, Notes on a Scandal, and United 93 over Blood Diamond, Devil Wears Prada, and the Pursuit of Happyness (don't think that would have happened)

2005: The Constant Gardener, A History of Violence, and Match Point over King Kong, Memoirs, and Pride & Prejudice

2004: Closer, Kinsey, and Vera Drake over Collateral, The Passion of the Christ, and The Phantom of the Opera (don't think so)

2003: American Splendor and Big Fish over City of God and In America (I concede that one - you're probably just as right)

2002: Adaptation and Far from Heaven over About a Boy and Catch Me If You Can (again - either way)

2001: Indie hits Memento and Mulholland Drive over pop sensations Harry Potter and Ocean's Elen

2000: Dancer in the Dark and Wonder Boys over Cast Away and Quills

1999: The End of the Affair, Magnolia, and Toy Story 2 over The Hurricane, The Matrix, and Topsy-Turvy

This was a fun game and it would be cool to do it all the way back through the years - though obviously it becomes harder and less theoretically accurate. Thanks for the idea!

9:07 AM, June 25, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@N: It wouldn't freak me out to get solo Best Picture nominees. When it happened in the past, it was sometimes lovely (Libeled Lady, Grand Hotel...), and if anything worked to the advantage of movies that lots of people enjoyed without finding them outlandishly original or dazzlingly crafty. I'm curious what you mean by "generous," but I realize all of these fantasy lists could be debated till the cows come home, to no practical avail.

@Cal: I really don't know if every voter choosing ten is better or not. I'm sure it would free the Kidmans and Stones, let's say, who seem really adventurous and wide-ranging in what they see, to jot down even more left-field and high-caliber stuff. Which seems like it'd be good. But Nathaniel's already quoted one Academy member who feels hard-pressed to think of five Oscar-quality movies a year, which suggests that a lot of members will have trouble making it to ten without petering out into almost everything they saw, which is probably closer to what everyone else saw... and works to the blockbusters' advantage (possibly to the better, but often to the worse, I would think) or to the Christmas baubles that the studios obviously want people to nominate. What this means for the Melissa Leos who avowedly "just vote for their friends" is even less clear.

I can easily see The Incredibles argument, but that year emerged for me as one with a LOT of bonafide contenders for a ten-wide field... otherwise, Vera Drake would be up there, too.

@Tim: I just never heard a single person say a nice thing about Doubt as a movie, even if they loved the perfs... and Shanley doesn't have Ron Howard coattails in Hollywood. Obviously, it would have been a major threat, but I don't see it as a gimme. Ratatouille, probably really close, but I couldn't figure out what it would supplant: almost all of my extra "five" were on meaningful bellwether-lists right up till nomination day. The Phantom of the Opera... the studio pushed hard, got more tech nods than it deserved, and stood to make a lot of money if it had convinced people that it wasn't such a piece of sh*t. (Is it bad that I preferred Cinderella Man to Frost/Nixon, if we're hair-splitting among "C" movies?)

@Abe: Fun! Thanks for sharing your lists. I can see all of these arguments, and again, I should probably resist the urge to haggle too much in pure abstractions. I do think stuff like Matrix and Bourne (which won everything they were nominated for, and that was a lot, including Editing over the BP winners) and Kong (which came awfully close), all of which made a lot of people a LOT of money, would exert a bigger pull over these wider fields than I guess other people do. Even more so for Harry Potter, which was chugging strong at the box-office, was on the Producers Guild Award list despite its evident mediocrity, and stood to make a ton of people a heap of money. Again, who knows. I recognize I'm most out on a limb in guessing films like Prada and Happyness that seemed to have ardent fans and widespread appeal despite few actual nods, but that was part of the fun of this. Great call on Memento, which I forgot: I bet you're right there.

10:29 AM, June 25, 2009  
Anonymous Carl said...

Yeah, what Cal said about "The Incredibles", and the working consensus on "Bourne". I do like "United 93", which had director and editing nods (among the more reliable belwethers for Best Picture strength) making a ten-wide.

12:28 PM, June 25, 2009  
Anonymous goatdog said...

I just thought of something: this means they don't need an Animated Film category anymore, since Pixar will likely get a nomination once in a while and please the people who complained about animation getting stiffed. Of course they'll never think of this on their own.

9:42 PM, June 25, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Carl: Fair enough!

@Goatdog: You make an excellent point, except what are we going to tell the producers of the next Jimmy Neutron or Surf's Up?

9:49 PM, June 25, 2009  
Blogger Colin Low said...

Since this change hasn't legislated against the Academy's tastes, I agree that it's unlikely to change anything. Only a major reform in the balloting system would. My fantasy balloting system works like this: each voter gets three preferential votes each for five special categories (Best Drama, Best Comedy/Musical, Best Action/Scifi/Animated Film, Best Documentary, Best Foreign Film) and then five more preferential votes for five movies in any category that they haven't already nominated as 1st in those categories.

The top-voted nominee in each of the special categories automatically gets a Best Pic nomination, filling out five slots -- the hope being that this will push in films that the Academy might not otherwise have. The other five are then decided in the present manner with the remaining five votes, because being the top in your respective genre doesn't always ensure quality.

11:56 PM, June 25, 2009  
Blogger Glenn Dunks said...

So we're going to get situations like Amelie being nominated for best picture, yet still losing foreign language? I know smaller groups vote for foreign language, but it'll just make that category look even sillier than it already does.

4:12 AM, June 26, 2009  
Blogger Colin Low said...

Given that the rare scenario you've described has already happened, what's the beef? I thought the point was to nurture a more diverse and interesting Best Picture field than we are presently offered. If a bizarre result of my fantasy balloting system is that the nominees that straddle both the Best Pic field and their "ghetto" categories don't win in the latter, have we not already benefited from their reverse-discriminatory presence in the Best Pic field, where they will surely gain more attention than as the winners of their respective ghettoes?

(I forgot to mention another technical aspect of my impossible dream: the eventual ten Best Pic nominees won't demarcate which five among them were the "special category noms", even if the lone documentary or foreign-language film among them might give the game away. Hopefully, the seemingly-even Best Pic field that results will encourage more voters to see a more diverse group of movies, or -- even better -- the "non-special category noms" will dilute the votes among the usual middlebrow Oscar pics, raising the chances for a genre pic to snag the big prize. One can dream...)

8:59 AM, June 26, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Colin: Well, I'm against genre-based divisions in this kind of exercise anyway (look what a hash the Globes make of everything from year to year), but I'm all for thinking outside the box. Enjoy your pipe dream!

@Glenn: They're probably never going to avoid scenarios like that until they start requiring all voters to see all of the films. Which would be even dreamier than what Colin's talking about, and probably even more impossible.

11:07 AM, June 26, 2009  
Blogger Andrew K. said...

For some reason I just can't see The Devil Wears Prada and The Pursuit of Happyness getting in over Notes on A Scandal, which already had four nods [three in main categories], or Little Children or Bobby. Both The Devil Wears Prada and The Pursuit of Happyness depended on the main actor's performance [well Meryl and Emily Blunt], I don't think they were really that expansive in terms of support. I mean they couldn't even nominate Emily Blunt.

11:38 AM, June 26, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@EE: Very likely you're right. Just to clarify where I was coming from: given preferential balloting, first-place choices will count for a lot, and Devil Wears Prada, besides scoring on major lists like the Globes and the AFI Top Ten, was surely the favorite movie of a whole lotta people in 2006, given how it appeals to a few demographics (women, gay men, comedy fans, anyone who wants to see 50+ actresses headlining a hit...) that are typically underserved. It may not have a script or a score as good as Notes' (at least according to members of those branches), but when someone says, "What was your favorite movie last year?", I've gotta think Prada would come up a lot more than Notes. And it made a ton of money.

Pursuit: Huge marketing push right during balloting time, popularly embraced and decent reviews, marketed heavily to another audience (African Americans) whom the industry doesn't serve well. As I recall, a lot of people's favorite movie from that year, certainly during balloting season. A strong contender for that Erin Brockovich/Norma Rae spot: the BP nominee based, as you say, on a big star giving a game-raising performance in a well-liked movie.

None of this "proves" anything; it's just what I was thinking. I'm sure equally/more convincing arguments could be made against these films or for the competitors I sidelined. And I (obviously?) don't mean to imply that only certain "target demographics" embraced these movies, or that they were universally loved by those demo's, or that people always vote with their own census profiles in mind. But I do think the ten-wide system is going to make preferential balloting even more important, and since a lot of voters admit to not seeing a huge list of movies every year, it's certainly going to play to the advantage of basically well-regarded films that almost everyone saw.

11:51 AM, June 26, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

....and that a strong core of people absolutely love, especially because it's "catchy" (Prada) or middlebrow-inspirational (Happyness). Those "easier to admire than to like" movies like United 93 or Little Children still seem more eligible in craftsmanship categories than for a ten-wide BP nomination, even if that means they get more overall nods.

11:53 AM, June 26, 2009  
Blogger Andrew K. said...

Now you have me even more worried about this experiment.

The thing with demographics though, is its weird. I mean, I'm black and I couldn't stand The Pursuit of Happyness. PS. Check out this link

It has a really cool video.

PS. Check out my blog if you have time. I need some feed back.

1:32 PM, June 26, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@EE: Oh, for sure, about the demographic thing: I'm gay and could barely work up much enthusiasm about Prada, Brokeback, and other stuff I'm "supposed" to like. I tried to finesse that point in the last comment, but it may be an inherently clunky claim. By far the bigger "check" to me in the Happyness column is how earnestly it works that "American dream"/hazily "inspirational" vibe that has propelled many a BP nominee. Plus a "real" character, a fortune at the box office, and Hollywood's most bankable star: I think an aggressive campaign could have pulled off a BP nomination and a couple of others even under the old system, but the studio didn't much try. From a certain angle of vision, it's a head-scratcher that AMPAS didn't slobber all over it.

2:33 PM, June 26, 2009  
Blogger John T said...

Nick, leave it to you to be able to talk me into this being potentially a good idea. The only thing that I think the Academy should require here is that the Academy still can only include five nominees. I think that way, the voters who are voting in the bland Frost/Nixons and Babels will only have five slots, so perhaps (and perhaps I'm dreaming here) those people who would have filled their ballots up with Mulholland Drives and Pixar films and Pedro movies would have had their day in the sun.

And, if we go back further, this may have meant Best Picture nominations for The African Queen, Thelma & Louise, North by Northwest, The Birds, Rosemary's Baby, and perhaps even my beloved Once Upon a Time in the West (a boy can dream), which I think we can all agree would be fabulous. And I know that it isn't one of your favorite ponies, but I think vote-splitting would have meant the Crash of 2005 would never have occurred.

10:03 AM, June 27, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@John: I think I agree that it's a better idea to hold each ballot to five preferential choices and synthesize a list of ten from there, but I can see the argument the other way. Some voters will need a longer list to start thinking outside the box... but I bet they're outnumbered by the people who'd be forced to pad the list with dross just to make it to ten, because they have no idea what else to do. (Again, Nathaniel has interviewed an Academy member who implied as much.)

I heartily agree that the best upshot here is that lots of great movies that couldn't quite make it to the top five will have a fantastic shot now, and I don't think they'll all "stick out" as being out of contention. To take your Thelma & Louise example, given its Director, Screenplay, Actress, Cinematography, and Editing noms, that movie would have looked on paper like a major contender for the win, and no one would have been the wiser that it hadn't cracked the top five under the original system of tabulating. Big shift in buzz, with potentially exciting results.

If you're interested, I've expanded the original table to reach even further back into speculative versions of Oscars past. Turns out, despite some horrifying revelations, that there are even more reasons to feel good or at least excited by everything that coulda happened, or almost happened....

3:26 PM, June 27, 2009  

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