Newly painted Oscar Statues. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
Two years after expanding the best-picture race from five to 10 films in a bid to draw a larger audience to the Oscar telecast, the Motion Picture Academy has tweaked its rules again, switching to a more stringent, variable nominating system that will result in between five and 10 movies in the contest each year.
The 2009 expansion to 10 films infuriated those in the industry who felt that the academy was diluting its prestige in hopes of larger audience for its show by offering more populist films a shot in the competition. An initial boost for the 2010 telecast was reversed this year when the ratings for the show, hosted by young actors Anne Hathaway and James Franco, fell 10%.
In announcing the rule change, the academy's board of governors said the move would add "a new twist" to the best-picture race, and "a new element of surprise" to its annual nominations announcement, which happens in late January. But the shift does not address what many critics say is the most pressing problem facing the Oscar broadcast, which falls in late February after months of other ceremonies by various Hollywood guilds and groups: a lack of suspense and a general awards weariness.
Still, Tuesday night's announcement of the new rules was met by support from many in Hollywood.
"This is a good change," said Terry Press, veteran Oscar campaign consultant. "I think we are all aware of years where five didn't cover it and 10 was too many."
The decision comes amid a sea change at the academy. Executive Director Bruce Davis will retire at the end of June after 30 years at the academy; Dawn Hudson, formerly of Film Independent, began her tenure on the first of the month.
"The board examines this every year and while overall there is a feeling that we like expanding the best-picture nominees, we wanted to make sure that wherever the cutoff is, those films have garnered the most support from the membership," Hudson said Wednesday.
The academy uses a preferential nominations process whereby its nearly 6,000 voting members rank their preferred candidates for best picture from 1 to 10. Academy officials said that after much analysis, it was determined that a film must receive at least 5% of the first-place votes to receive a nomination.
In a rare glimpse into academy voting patterns, officials said that over the last 10 years, the average percentage of first-place votes received by the top nominee was 20.5%. The officials said that if the new system had been in place between 2001 and 2008, the best-picture slate would have had between five and nine nominees in those years.
Some believe the academy is scrambling to restore confidence in the organization after the change to 10 best-picture nominees was met with ridicule by a number of members and media critics. According to one person who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to talk on the record, the academy two years ago considered the system adopted Tuesday as an alternative to expanding the race to 10 films.
But others said they were impressed by the academy's nimbleness. "I think we should all be encouraged that the academy is constantly examining the process," Press said. "With this and the hiring of Dawn, they are showing a desire to evolve, and that's a good thing."
Award campaign strategists are now wondering how the new rule will change the way the race is run. Given the number of members who typically cast nominating ballots, a film would have to secure roughly 240 first-place votes on the nominations ballot to clear the 5% threshold and enter the best-picture race.
Does this mean only small, prestigious films will be in contention? Or will mainstream films like 2009's "The Blind Side" still have a shot? In the past, academy members have tended to gravitate toward lesser-seen, art-house fare — think 2009's "The Hurt Locker," which grossed only $17 million at the U.S. box office but still took home the best-picture Oscar, beating the record-breaking, global blockbuster "Avatar."
"If the populist film is really good technically, artistically and performance-wise, then it could get in," said one high-ranking public relations executive who is a member of the academy and asked not to be identified. "It can't just be commercial. I don't think you're going to see 'Bridesmaids.' But the ['Dark Knight'] example that's always used — this does allow for a film like that."
Murray Weissman, who worked on Paramount's campaigns for "The Fighter" and "True Grit" for the most recent Oscar year, believes small, indie films will benefit from the change. "I think members judge films on artistic quality, emotion, story and technique. They are basically an older demographic, so the story and moviemaking is very important."
As for how studios campaign for the best-picture slots, many believe the change will do little to alter the parties, trade publication advertisements and special screenings that have become de rigueur during the months leading up to January's nominations. In fact, now that studios know they need a certain number of first-place nominating votes, they may actually try harder to secure them.
"I think it makes it more competitive. If anything, the sales reps at the trades are sending floral tributes over to the academy. [This is] going to make their lives easier," Press said. "In a weird way, it makes the stakes higher. Everyone wants to win."