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Will 10 contenders double Oscars' pleasure?

The film academy's decision to expand the best picture category may benefit smaller and foreign-language films as well as box-office favorites.

June 25, 2009|KENNETH TURAN | FILM CRITIC

A lot of unexpected Oscar winners have been announced over the years, but that's nothing compared with the astonishing news Wednesday from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that the best picture category will be doubled to 10 films. It certainly got the Oscars back in the conversation -- and that was no accident.

Tired of being written off by tireless naysayers as irrelevant and out of touch, the academy has struck back. By enlarging the number of slots, the group hopes to do a number of interlocking things that it expects will restore the Oscars to the glittering prominence they once had.

On a micro level, having a bigger Oscar pool will allow space for the big audience films that earn huge sums and have a sizable constituency in the academy but rarely make it to the top five. Christopher Nolan's two "Batman" films and the "Bourne" franchise pictures are prime examples, as well as comedies such as "Meet the Parents."

On a macro level, having more films in the mix makes it more likely that members of the potential television audience will have seen a few of them. Giving more Americans a chance to have a rooting interest, to personally care about who wins the big prize, is something the academy would love to do.

The interesting question, which only time can answer, is how well this intriguing idea will work. What will be the consequences, intended or otherwise, of going back to a system last used in 1944, when "Casablanca" took home the trophy. It may even make people inside and outside the academy watch more films just to have 10 to vote for.

It can have escaped no one's notice that while the 1930s and '40s were a golden age for studio product, the age we are living in now barely makes it to bronze. So though more blockbusters will make it in, those hoping the 10 will be dominated by Hollywood films will likely be disappointed.

Instead, the smaller films will retain their presence, with some differences. Independent films that have persistent, die-hard advocates may, for instance, be more likely to get in now that the bar has been lowered.

Also likely to get in are popular foreign-language films that, due to the political nature of the one-country, one-film rules in the foreign-language category, are often overlooked. Or, as was the case with the very popular Israeli film "The Band's Visit," violate the branch's arcane rules. This should especially be good news for France, which often has more than one film that academy voters are likely to embrace.

Another unintended consequence, especially this year, may be to make the animation category seem like a runner-up award. The academy has looked kindly on animated films in the past, nominating "Beauty and the Beast" for best picture in 1992. But ever since animated features got their own category, no film, not even the much-admired "Wall-E," has managed to get a best picture nomination. With 10 slots to fill, this will likely change, and "Up" is a good bet to be the first beneficiary.

But when it comes to what actually takes home the best picture award, the situation will reverse. Given 10 films to choose from, the odds increase that the winner will be a mainstream, middle of the road picture that has the broadest possible constituency. That may not make everyone happy, but it will get the award talked about, which is the whole idea.

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kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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