Why the Oscars Shouldn’t Go Back to 5 Best Picture Nominees

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This year’s Oscars were mildly rated and blasted by critics, and you know what that means: Instead of blaming host Neil Patrick Harris or the wan writing for that shortfall, the Academy is flirting with yet another rule change to shake things up. Every few years, this seems to happen in order to stir more interest in the lengthy awards-season race, where countless trophies are handed out before Oscar finally gets to weigh in. In 2009, the Academy expanded the Best Picture field from five nominees to ten in a famously muscular move; two years later, they tweaked that category to include anywhere between five and ten nominees, depending on how many contenders crossed a certain voting threshold. This time, according to The Hollywood Reporter, a significant amount of Academy higher-ups are urging the board to return to a simple five Best Picture nominees, which would nip in the bud the Oscars' six-year experiment with expansion.

I took a look at Twitter last night, and a lot of veteran Oscar watchers favor that move. The supersize Best Picture category has diluted the prestige of a nomination, they argue — a charge I’ve heard from more than a few Best Picture–winning producers as well. Some pundits posit that though the expanded field was meant to include more populist hits like The Dark Knight, all it’s really done is allow more indies to sneak into contention. And isn’t it kind of ugly and erratic to veer madly between a different number of nominations every year instead of a classic, set-in-stone five?

Well, on the latter point, even I can agree: I’m a stickler for round numbers, and a rule that produces eight- and nine-nominee years can’t quite justify its inconsistency. I break with most of my Oscar-watching brethren, though, by suggesting that the Academy ought to return to ten guaranteed Best Picture nominees instead of rolling the clock back to five. An expanded field is good for the Oscars and good for viewers, and it would be foolish to change that now.

Imagine, for example, if the Academy had trimmed this year’s Best Picture crop to five. Oscar voters spent the last few months fielding constant charges that the membership was out of step with public opinion; can you imagine the size of the outcry, then, if critical favorite Selma and blockbuster phenomenon American Sniper had been left out of the Best Picture race? Yet that’s almost certainly what would have happened, as favorites like Birdman, Boyhood, The Imitation Game, and The Grand Budapest Hotel would have grabbed those scarce nomination slots, leaving little left over for the winter’s two most-talked-about movies.

Yes, the Best Picture nominees leaned more indie this year, but that's by and large because the studios didn't produce many big, bold features worth awards consideration, and it’s not something that warrants another rule change. The only major studio movie that I felt was truly deserving of a second look was Guardians of the Galaxy, and when I contacted that film's publicity team in the fall to see whether any sort of notable Best Picture campaign would be mounted off the back of its mighty box-office success, I might as well have been asking whether they planned to run Groot for president. The notion of throwing Marvel marketing money into an attempt to rebrand Guardians as a worthy Best Picture nominee simply wasn't a consideration, and I think Academy members would have needed that nudge to remind them how much more they'd liked Guardians than any of the awards bait they popped into their DVD players. You can quibble with what that says about Oscar voters, but it's certainly not a problem that will be solved by shrinking the amount of Best Picture nominees.

(Besides, the Academy has hardly proved unwilling to reward populist picks since the field expanded. In 2009, the new nominations made room for giant hits like Up, The Blind Side, and District 9; the following year, the Best Picture field allowed megagrossers Inception and Toy Story 3. Since then, successful films like American Sniper, Captain Phillips, Django Unchained, and Zero Dark Thirty — none of which received a concurrent Best Director nomination — have all squeezed in, too.)

To my mind, the movies that make up the perceived “bottom tier” in the bigger Best Picture field — meaning they may not have made a stringent five-nominee cutoff — are often the best and the most daring. Think of films like Her, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Amour, The Tree of Life, and The Kids Are All Right: All of our recent Best Picture races would have been lesser without those movies competing. I talked to a lot of people this year who picked Whiplash as their favorite film; a five-nominee list likely would have left it off, while a ten-nominee field could have made room for both Whiplash and the on-the-bubble critical favorite Nightcrawler. Wouldn’t that have been more exciting?

As for whether the prestige factor of a Best Picture nomination is diminished when there’s more to go around, I’d argue quite the opposite. The fuller Best Picture field paints a more accurate portrait of the best cinema had to offer that year, and when I look back at some of the five-nominee seasons, I laugh at how off the mark they were. When I think of 2008, I can barely remember Frost/Nixon, which was nominated for Best Picture; instead, I’d first call to mind Wall-E, The Dark Knight, and The Wrestler, none of which were. Which film better represents 2004: the negligible Best Picture nominee Finding Neverland, or the cruelly snubbed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which could have penetrated an expanded field? And I can’t even deal with the 2000 Oscar race, when Harvey Weinstein’s trifle Chocolat got the slot that could have gone to more enduring films like Almost Famous, Billy Elliot, Requiem for a Dream, Cast Away, and You Can Count on Me.

There's no guarantee that those films would have made the Best Picture race even if it had been expanded, but they would have had a damn good chance, and the category would have looked a far sight better for it. So let's shirk that plan to shrink Best Picture and instead return to an even ten nominees, which has some historical precedent, after all: From 1932 to 1943, the Academy was willing to recognize ten Best Picture contenders, and movies like The Wizard of Oz, Grand Illusion, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Ninotchka, Wuthering Heights, The Great Dictator, and The Maltese Falcon all made it in. None of those films received a Best Director nod, which suggests that they all might have had their bubble popped if the Best Picture category had only included five contenders. Venture that sobering statistic next time someone suggests that ten nominees does no good.