Expanding the best-picture category: not quite what Oscar bargained for
This year's Oscar ceremony marks the fifth time members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have had more than five films to consider for best picture.
The change to nine or 10 nominees from five – to get a best-picture nod a film now has to earn at least 5 per cent of ballots cast by the 6,000 or so Academy members in toto – was announced in June 2009. It was prompted by the Academy's belief that there was too big a disconnect between the movies audiences actually were seeing and the fare being nominated. Academy executives at that time made particular mention of the absence of The Dark Knight and WALL-E from best-picture consideration earlier in the year, even as each film had enjoyed considerable critical and box-office success. Expanding the number of best-picture nominees, the argument went, would expand the types of films receiving consideration, result in increased viewership of the ceremony and just generally restore a measure of the cultural lustre Oscar used to have.
How has this hopey-changey stuff worked out for 'em? The results, unsurprisingly, have been mixed.
Let's break them down into a format beloved by Oscar, namely categories.
Has a greater variety of genres and idioms been represented in the nominees for best picture? The answer is a qualified yes. Previously, it was felt animation features, comedies, fantasy/science-fiction epics and films by so-called minority directors weren't getting enough respect. But, for example, at the 2010 ceremony, the year the new best-picture format bowed, two fantasy/sci-fi productions (Avatar, District 9) received best-picture consideration. Ditto Up, the popular animation feature, and Precious, the first film directed by an African-American (Lee Daniels) to ever score a best-picture berth.
At the same time, claims veteran Hollywood watchdog Mark Harris, the expansion has, paradoxically, had a constricting effect overall. He notes that this year the so-called "44 major award categories" are spread among just 12 films – the lowest such spread in 30 years. Last year had the second lowest in 30 years – just 14 movies nominated for 44 major nods. Harris argues doubling the best-picture field has "concretized among voters the sense that major nominations, wherever possible, should come from the top-tier movies."
Bad films, of course, always outnumber the good. When Oscar announced its hike in best-picture nominees, there were fears weaker films would gain toeholds and therefore diminish the value of a best-picture nod. So far, though, the consensus seems to be that from 2010 onwards the majority of the best-picture nominees have been sufficiently deserving. In other words, no Dr. Dolittle (1967), The Robe (1953), How the West Was Won (1963)
or other embarrassments. Yes, there's been grousing that the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis should have bumped, say, Dallas Buyers Club or Philomena among this year's best-pic contenders – but no one's saying the alleged "snub" represents a major systematic failure. The Coens, in fact, have been well-served by the new regime: their A Serious Man was a best picture nominee in 2010; the same for True Grit the next year.
Pundits used to talk about the Oscar bounce – shorthand for describing how a film still playing commercially would enjoy increased ticket sales in the wake of a best-picture nomination. Right now about six of the nine films nominated for this year's best picture remain in theatres (the rest are available on-demand and as DVDs or soon will be) and of these, only 12 Years a Slave enjoyed a real uptick after nominations were announced in mid-January.
To date, its take has been around $50-million in North America while fellow contenders Dallas Buyers Club, Her, Nebraska and Philomena have grossed, respectively, $25-million, $24, $17 and $33-million.
By contrast, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (nominated for no Oscars) and Iron Man 3 (nominated for one, in special effects) earned $424-million and $409-million, respectively, in North American box office.
The 2013-14 best-picture nominee with the biggest box office, Gravity ($269-million), was released in October, well before the December/January cluster of potential Oscar candidates, and was a mega-hit from the get-go.
In our epoch of digital distraction, it's safe to say the Oscar telecast likely will never, no matter the host, attract the viewers it did in the 1970s or even as recently as 1998 when the popularity of Titanic helped lure an average North American viewership of almost 56 million. That "trend" likely will hold this year. Admittedly, viewership has been larger since the break with the five-picture format, certainly larger than the 32 million who watched the Coens' No Country for Old Men named best picture in February 2008. But the increases have been wobbly. In 2010, powered by Avatar's reach, average viewership was just over 41 million, only to dip the next year to 37.6 million on The King's Speech victory. In 2012, with The Artist's win in a field of nine, it bumped to 39.3 million, then to 40.3 million last year with Argo prevailing in another nine-film joust, this one hosted by Seth MacFarlane.