Just two years after switching their decades old structure of five Best Picture nominees, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, has announced another major shakeup to the nominations process, starting with the 2012 Academy Awards. Now instead of a fixed number of nominees, the Best Picture category will be determined by the percentages of votes received. This excerpt from the official Academy press release explains:
“With the help of PricewaterhouseCoopers, we’ve been looking not just at what happened over the past two years, but at what would have happened if we had been selecting 10 nominees for the past 10 years,” explained Academy President Tom Sherak… During the period studied, the average percentage of first place votes received by the top vote-getting movie was 20.5. After much analysis by Academy officials, it was determined that 5% of first place votes should be the minimum in order to receive a nomination, resulting in a slate of anywhere from five to 10 movies.
“In studying the data, what stood out was that Academy members had regularly shown a strong admiration for more than five movies,” said [retiring Academy executive director Bruce] Davis. “A Best Picture nomination should be an indication of extraordinary merit. If there are only eight pictures that truly earn that honor in a given year, we shouldn’t feel an obligation to round out the number.”
Uh oh. That press release has math. I specifically got into the movie game so I would never have to think about math. So what does this mean in layman’s terms? That five Best Picture nominees is still considered too few, but ten is now considered too many. So the new plan is to try a system that can expand or contract on a per year basis depending on the quality of films and the number of votes they receive.
This new system reminds me a little bit of the completely unscientific, but totally fascinating measure that J. Hoberman invented for use in the Village Voice‘s annual film poll: The Passiondex. It’s calculated by dividing a film’s total points by the number of critics who voted for the film. Then that number is multiplied by the number of first place votes the film received (ugh, more math! Worst blogging day ever). Hoberman believes The Passiondex “enables us to make a distinction between those movies that have true partisans and fervent lovers, and those others which, inspiring fraternal good wishes, are the consensus choices that typically appear toward the bottom of many lists.” And that’s basically what this new Oscar system does: reward the movies that are ranked first by Academy voters. If a movie is widely liked, but not deeply loved — if it appears as the #5 film on every ballot, but as the #1 film on zero ballots — it won’t make the cut.
So why the change? Over at Deadline, Pete Hammond says the new plan stems from “the feeling is the Academy has to do something to reinvigorate its contest, which has been losing the suspense factor due to the large number of pre-Oscar awards shows…by the time Oscar noms roll around near the end of January, everyone is tired and the race predictable.” That was the essential argument of my 2011 Oscar wrap-up piece; instead of blaming the mediocre Oscar telecast on the scapegoated hosts or the lame comedy bits, the real problem was the lack of surprise. (“When we remember our favorite Oscar moments,” I wrote, “we don’t think of planned material. We love the crazy spontaneous moments.”) I’m not sure how this new system improves the actual Oscar show itself — since all the suspense comes before the nominations are announced — but it at least throws a fresh wrinkle into the mix.
Now that the two year experiment is over, it’s pretty clear that the 10-nominee system, was doomed to fail from the start. It was implemented, we were told, to spread the box-office boosting cache of the “Academy Award Nominated!” tag to more movies, and to encourage Oscar telecast viewership by allowing more room in the Best Picture category for popular, mainstream fare. But both of those benefits were ultimately self-defeating. People go see Best Picture nominees sight unseen because with just five movies every year, that designation feels special. Doubling the field makes the industry happier, but it also tarnishes the Oscar brand for quality. And even with twice as many Best Picture nominees, the race still came down to a fight between two films.
Though I’m curious to see how this development affects next year’s nominees, I’m a little worried about this flurry of changes to the way the Oscars work. To me, the number of nominees is ultimately less important than the consistency of the awards. We like the Oscars in movies for the same reason we like stats in baseball: as a way to measure success and to compare the past to the present. Because of statistics we can compare the baseball players of today to the ones in the Hall of Fame. We used to be able to do that with the Oscars, by looking at which movies made the cut and which ones didn’t. Without consistency, that’s tough to do. And now the Academy seems intent on a system, its third in four years, that is defined by inconsistency.