Even the Academy isn’t happy with itself these days.
After attempting to include more popular movies in its best picture category, there is a strong chance the 10 nominations spots will jump off of the ballot and into Oscar history books. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the move has strong support from a large swath of the now over 6,000 members of the Academy. The first governor’s meeting is scheduled for later this month, March 24th, where the decision to reduce its best picture nominations may pass.
Critics cite the woeful number of viewers for this year’s 87th Academy Awards as evidence that the strategy to make the race more inclusive of broader appeal movies has failed. Viewership fell about 15 percent for the Neil Patrick Harris hosted dud that sparked boycotts over the lack of nominees of color with #OscarsSoWhite. Subsequent controversies sparked over a poor joke at best picture and best director winner Alejandro González Iñárritu’s expense from Sean Penn and Patricia Arquette’s backstage remarks.
An Academy spokesperson stated, "As we do each year, the Academy will meet in the coming months to evaluate not only the telecast, but also the awards season in its entirety." Sources also shared that the board of governors were displeased at the length and quality of this year’s show. Others voiced concerns that the 10 possible nominations diluted the prestige of the category and the awards.
The policy to double the number of nomination slots was introduced after outcry over the omission of “The Dark Knight” in 2009. Over the past six years of its implementation, few box office hits like “American Sniper” or “The Blind Side” have crept onto nominations list, but nothing that really translated to a significant spike in viewership for the Oscars telecast. In the first year of its implementation, James Cameron’s sci-fi epic “Avatar” and Neill Blomkamp’s dystopian allegory “District 9” were among the 10 nominees.
However small, an Oscar nomination does give selected films a sort of “seal of approval” that encourages moviegoers to give the smaller niche art house hits a try, despite the movie’s lack of superheroes or A-list celebrity cast. In 2011, Steve Spielberg’s “Lincoln” received a 17 percent bump at the box office after its nominations. Its fellow nominee, David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” rode an impressive 38 percent at the box office. This year’s “American Sniper” earned over $90 million at the box office the weekend after nominations were announced. It’s impossible to say if that was the deciding factor for the spike in ticket sales, but “Sniper’s” wide release coincided perfectly for the Oscar announcements. After winning the Oscar for best documentary feature, Laura Poitras’ “Citizenfour” premiered on HBO the next night for a very curious audience who may have missed its short theatrical run.
Smaller films like this year’s “Whiplash” and “Selma” would be most affected by the decision to reduce candidates. Neither was a particular front-runner to the awards going in, but they enjoyed a small box office bump when nominees were announced and carry on the Oscar nominated distinction. Since it’s inception for the 82nd Academy Awards, interesting candidates like “District 9,” “Up,” Inception,” “The Social Network,” “Winter’s Bone,” “The Descendants,” “Inglorious Basterds,” “Amour” and “Gravity” now have the distinction of calling themselves Oscar nominated films and attracting audiences through that seal of approval. There’s always been head-scratching candidates (Remember “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” anyone?) in the history of the Oscars, but widening the selection did allow for the discussion to include a controversial Clint Eastwood film like “American Sniper” or Wes Anderson’s biggest box office hit to date, “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”
Which also points to reducing the number of possible best picture nominees would hurt major studios as well. When studios are making billions on franchises, smaller picture risks like “American Sniper” would lose its shine for studio heads if there wasn’t a faint glint of Oscar gold at the end.
The actors and filmmakers who do win are sometimes able to negotiate raises and commissions for better projects. However, previous one-time Oscar nominated actors may also lose opportunities since a win does not guarantee success. Like fame, fortune and almost everything else in Hollywood, an Oscar win can also be a double-edged sword.
The success “Birdman” is enjoying in theaters right now is a rare one. The film has been out for over 20 weeks and available on VOD and Blu-Ray, yet theaters are still running Alejandro González Iñárritu’s movie. So far, it has raked in over $80 million at the box office, and after the results of the 87th Academy Awards, Fox Searchlight announced an expanded and extended run for “Birdman.”
Bringing the number of nominees down won’t bring back viewers. That would take an overhaul of a lumbering, disjointed ceremony that once originally began as a glorified dinner party in a hotel hall. The threat to new filmmakers attempting to break in however is culpable. The Academy might shy away from adventurous nominees from both indie and well-established filmmakers because they don’t reflect the “standard” Oscar fare. There would be less opportunities for marginalized filmmakers that could help the trajectory of their careers. A smaller ballot won’t fix the Academy’s rating problems. The board of governers won’t find the Academy’s problem with its ballot, it will find it in the way the Academy's been managed for decades.