How to Fix the Oscars: Seeded Nominations!

Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

The Oscars have a nomination problem, and Hollywood has a scheduling problem, and these two problems are interrelated, and both can be solved with the same simple fix. Let’s start with the nomination problem: The Best Picture nomination process is broken, and recent efforts to tamper with it have only made it worse. Not long ago, the Academy nominated five films for Best Picture — and while this ensured that a few arguably worthy films were left out every year (which, if you think about it, is the whole point of a prize process that gradually winnows to one winner), it also ensured that there were very few laughers or total head-scratchers that slipped through the gates. Then, just in time for the 2009 awards, the Academy changed the rules to allow for ten nominees, which improved nothing while ensuring that, every single year, a few laughers and head-scratchers do sneak through the gates.

Here are just a few movies that you may have forgotten were once nominated for Best Picture — and my inclusion of them is not to suggest that they aren’t good or commendable movies but simply to highlight that, at one time, they were put into competition as plausible candidates to be considered the very best film of the entire year. Up. Up in the Air. (That’s two different movies, not a misprint or a Superman biopic.) 127 Hours. Hugo. War Horse. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Life of Pi. Again, this is not to say these aren’t competent or even admirable films, but only to point out that, when you’ve got Hugo in contention for Best Picture, you can safely assume you’re no longer in danger of leaving out some overlooked and underrated contender.

Two years after that rule change, the Academy changed the rules again so that only the films that received a certain percentage of votes would be included, up to a maximum of ten. This tinkering, magically, made things even worse. Now, in years where there aren’t ten nominees (such as in both 2012 and 2013), the overall message conveyed by the Academy isn’t, Hey, let’s celebrate the best that the film world has to offer! but rather Hey, the film world couldn’t even get it together enough to make ten worthwhile movies this year!

Furthermore, adding additional nominees — whether eight, nine, or ten — hasn’t made the race more exciting, it’s simply created more clutter. The Best Picture race still reliably boils down to two or maybe three top contenders — except now there are eight also-rans rather than two or three. (No one, no one, no one went into last year’s Oscars thinking Nebraska was pulling the upset.) There are simply too many early indicators for the Oscars to be a real surprise. Ironically, part of the reason the Academy keeps tinkering with its voting rules and shuttling its telecast all over the calendar is because the explosion of pre-Oscar awards — critics circles, various guilds, Golden Globes, BAFTAs, and so on — has drained all the mystery from the Oscars itself. The best you can hope for isn’t “Holy smokes, who’s it gonna be!!!” excitement but rather “Very probably 12 Years a Slave, though there’s a slim chance, I guess, for Gravity” inevitability. As a result, the final envelope-ripping in the final minutes of the thank-heavens-it's-finally-over four-hour Oscar telecast, coming after months of campaigning and weeks of awarding, doesn’t feel, as it should, like the shocking climax to a thrilling, nail-biting tournament of excellence. It feels like an obligatory announcement and merciful pardon after a months-long forced march along an infinite red carpet.

So that’s the nominating problem. Now, on to the scheduling problem.

Because of awards season, Hollywood habitually backloads the calendar, and now the whole year is desperately out of whack. January is known as film-dump season, an arid wasteland for cinematic offerings. The summer season is annually strangulated by steroidal blockbusters. And then there’s the final few months — six fevered weeks, really — when pretty much every award-worthy film of the year is rushed into release.

Let’s take the ten Golden Globe nominees — five for Best Drama, five for Best Musical or Comedy — as a yardstick. Of these ten films, one (The Grand Budapest Hotel) was released in the six months between January 1 and July 1; two (Boyhood and St. Vincent) were released in the four months between July 1 and November 1; five (Foxcatcher, Birdman, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Into the Woods) were released in the six weeks between mid-November and the end of the year; one (Selma) was snuck into limited release on Christmas Day and didn’t open wide until this month; and one (Pride) has not yet been released widely in the U.S. at all.

This clustering of quality films in the post–Toronto Film Festival weeks of fall and winter frustrates critics, publicists, movie exhibitors, studios, and award voters, but, most crucially, it alienates the movie audience. How many civilians got worked up about the supposed titanic struggle between Boyhood and Selma, given that Selma hadn’t even opened across the country on the night the Globes aired? American Sniper, a patriotic film that likely would have garnered more awards buzz if, you know, people in America were able to see it, was given a limited release on Christmas Day and doesn’t go wide until January 16 — one day after the Oscar nominations are announced. Of all the side effects of this silly awards-show pileup, this one seems like the silliest: People are expected to care about the awards prospects of films they won’t get to see until long after the awards are awarded.

On both ends — the Oscar nominating process, and the film-release-scheduling process — the system is obviously broken. Yet there’s a simple, satisfying, and, I’d argue, extraordinarily pleasing solution — one that would increase viewer engagement, increase overall suspense and excitement, and already has real-world applications elsewhere (namely, the world of sports) for the Academy to use as a rough model. 

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you: seeded Oscar nominations.

When the NFL fixes its playoff schedule, it doesn’t just pit the 12 best teams against each other; the league selects the champion from each of four divisions in two separate conferences, then adds an additional four wild-card teams, for a total of 12 playoff teams. When the NCAA selects competitors for its annual March Madness tournament, it doesn’t just pick the 68 best teams in the county. It selects one champion each from 32 different conferences, then selects an additional 36 teams “at-large.” I know what you’re thinking: Sure, but how do we translate all that sports-jargon goobledygook to the refined and elegant and serious world of film-award-giving-outing?

No, I’m not going to suggest that films face off, head-to-head, in a tournament-style bracket. (Though: intriguing!) What I propose is a much simpler, three-step reformation.

Step 1: Reduce the number of Best Picture nominees back to five, as God intended. No one need shed a tear if next year’s version of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close misses the Oscar cut.

Step 2: Divide the film-release calendar into four three-month segments: Winter (January through March), Spring (April through June), Summer (July through September), and Fall (October through December). If you want to add a little sports-arena razzle-dazzle to the process, give these “seasons” more exciting names, like Frost Season, Blossom Season, Blockbuster Season, and Prestige Season. The fifth nomination is reserved for a wild card, which can be a film that came out any time during the year.

Step 3: Instruct Academy voters to select the best film released in each season, for a total of four selections. The top vote-getter in each season becomes the Best Picture nominee from that season. And the top vote-getter from any season that didn’t win its particular season becomes the fifth wild-card nominee.

By returning to five nominees — a no-brainer — you ratchet up the prestige of simply getting a nod. And by dividing the nominations among seasonal contenders, you temper the extent to which preceding awards shows chip away at Oscar’s big reveal. Best Picture nominees, having been chosen by totally novel criteria, would reliably be different from the films repeatedly feted elsewhere. And worthy blockbusters like The Dark Knight — the snubbed film that, anecdotally, prodded the change toward the ridiculous, too-inclusive, ten-nominee system — would stand a great chance to earn a nomination simply by winning its Blockbuster Season slot. 

In fact, imagine the breadth of gamification and intrigue and ingenuity that now becomes possible. Studios and distributors could look at the whole year like generals surveying a battlefield map. Your spunky indie release might not have a prayer in jam-packed Prestige Season — but move it to Blossom Season (a three-month stretch which, this year, saw exactly zero Golden Globe nominees released), and you’ve suddenly got a chance. Films like American Sniper (released so late that it wasn’t even considered for many pre-Oscar awards) or The Gambler (a potential award contender that got snowed under in the avalanche of competition) could seek out more promising release slots — or, hell, wait a few weeks and compete in Frost Season for 2015. You no longer need to worry that your early year film release will be “forgotten” come ballot time, since you’re only competing with other films released early. Which means filmmakers have a real incentive to spread their best films all over the calendar — and audiences looking for something to watch in the stifling summery shadow of, say, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have new hope as they head out to the cinema.

Let’s game it out for this year: Boyhood, by cannily counterprogramming its release in August, would be a lock to snatch the Blockbuster Season’s slot. Grand Budapest, the best film in a weak winter, tops the Frost division. Maybe Birdman’s studio, gaming the system, craftily slipped that film into the (for now) uncompetitive Blossom Season, thus ensuring a nomination and avoiding an ensuing slugfest with Prestige Season heavyweights like Selma and The Imitation Game. And then the top-non-champion vote-getter — maybe a dark-horse sentimental favorite like St. Vincent — slips in at No. 5 as the spunky wild-card underdog.

The result: Better films are released all year. Critics don’t have to scramble to see every Oscar contender post-Thanksgiving. Film publicists get to spread the load over 12 months rather than six crazy weeks. Maniacal studio heads who love to game awards get a whole new way to game them — and a way that doesn’t have to involve shadow attacks and whisper campaigns against other nominees. Smart, whiz-bang blockbusters like this year’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes would be reliably rewarded for aiming higher than their punch-drunk summer contemporaries. And most important, Oscar viewers can cheer lustily for films they’ve actually already seen, rather than films that premiered months ago at Telluride, played for one week in New York and L.A., and won’t hit their towns for another month. Who knows — maybe, just as in sports, fan bases will develop around different seasons. People will sit at home in their Frost Season colors, cheering their division’s nominee. I’m usually a Blockbuster Season supporter, but this year’s Wild Card has really caught my imagination. Who doesn’t love an underdog?

In short, with seeded nominations, everyone wins. Well, not everyone — eventually, there can be only one winner, the year’s Best Picture recipient. That is already how it should be. But a seeded nomination system would make getting to that eventual winner a whole lot more rational and a hell of a lot more fun.