Summer popcorn season is over and as the leaves begin to turn, movies with Oscar aspirations start to appear at the multiplex. In Los Angeles, the leaves are more likely to burn than turn, but nonetheless, some members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are feeling a bit of a chill in the air.
That’s because this year, for the first time in decades, 10 movies will be contending for Best Picture instead of five. The academy’s hope is that more big commercial popcorn movies will make the grade, which might draw a broader audience for the lucrative awards telecast.
But some academy members worry that this is not the time to ask them to produce a list of 10 solid nominees. “They’re looking at the year—we’re eight months in—and they don’t see that many [strong] pictures,” says Pete Hammond, a veteran handicapper who assesses the field for the Los Angeles Times. “It’s not 1939, in other words.”
No, this is not exactly the greatest year in film history, the year that brought us The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. And while most Oscar-fodder films are not released until the year’s end, Hammond says that 30 percent fewer movies will be released in that period compared with 2008. So obviously academy members will have less to choose from.
“Agents, managers, publicity teams—you should be a fly on the wall in one of these meetings!” he says. “I’ve been in rooms where discussions like that go way past nuclear.”
“Just seeing it in my mind’s eye, it’s just ridiculous,” says the head of one production company. He is among those who think that expanding the Best Picture category diminishes the prestige of the nomination. “It puts a premium more on the value of the broadcast than the awards,” he says. “It’s completely out of whack.”
Many executives don’t like the change because they will find themselves pressured to spend money on Oscar campaigns for sure losers without necessarily getting the box-office bump that used to follow nominations. “You’re going to have crazy-ass people chasing awards,” laments the production-company head. And just saying “no” is not easy. “Agents, managers, publicity teams—you should be a fly on the wall in one of these meetings!” he says. “I’ve been in rooms where discussions like that go way past nuclear.”
Last week, the academy also announced a weighted voted system: Instead of choosing one Best Picture, academy members must submit 10-best lists in order of preference. This means that the picture with the most votes might not win—a move that has done nothing to quell the controversy. Some consider it fair, but a longtime Oscar consultant calls it just a “satanically ingenious” way to generate suspense about the outcome.
Among the films that have been released so far, handicappers see just two that are likely nominees— Up and The Hurt Locker. The latter probably would have been nominated even in a field of five, but having grossed less than $12 million to date, it’s not the type of commercial hit that the academy hopes to inject into the mix. Up probably wouldn’t have made the Best Picture category if there were five slots, as animated films are usually shunted into their own category. It was a big commercial hit, but the Oscar campaigner still doesn’t think its nomination will boost the telecast’s ratings.
The academy cannot draw in a bigger audience in today’s world, he argues, and even a film like The Dark Knight wouldn’t change that. “For many years, people watched the Academy Awards because that’s what you did,” he says. “Everything has changed. What makes anybody think they can recapture those ratings numbers?”
Even if a film like The Dark Knight would grab the public’s attention, the summer didn’t produce one. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen or G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra can’t be seen as Best Picture material no matter how much you squint. Star Trek was not a hit on the scale of The Dark Knight, but it seems at a glance like a movie that could pull out a nomination in a field of 10. It seems that way to me, at least, but my most reliable Oscar watchers and campaign strategists say I’m wrong. Apparently no sequel has ever been nominated if the original was overlooked. Is Star Trek a sequel or a reboot? Doesn’t matter, according to the handicappers— it won’t make the cut. Of course, the rule change could mean that the accumulated wisdom of the Oscar watchers has passed its expiration date.
For what it’s worth, the experts think the summer film most likely to sneak into contention thanks to the expanded field is District 9. Regardless, the Oscar strategist and the production-company chief agree that the academy will be thwarted in its wish to get more popular movies into the mix. Instead, nominations will go to a larger group of small films that helped create the issue in the first place—like Crash and No Country for Old Men.
“Let’s face it—Hollywood quit making good movies,” the consultant says.
The academy will back off this experiment pretty fast, he wagers. And maybe he’s right. From the start, in fact, the academy has hung the whole idea around the necks of director Bill Condon and producer Laurence Mark, who put together last year’s show. This was their idea, the academy has said repeatedly. And when anyone gives away credit in Hollywood that quickly, can it be a good sign?
Kim Masters covers the entertainment business for The Daily Beast. She is also the host of The Business, public radio's weekly program about the business of show business. She is also the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.