Oscars 2011: Why More Is More in the Best Picture Race

Last year, the Academy increased the nominees pool from five to ten—which was a win for studios and audiences alike


Columbia Pictures/Mandeville Films/Mandalay Vision

The Oscars ostensibly celebrate motion-picture artistry. But, decided by voters and closely overseen by legions of odds-makers, they essentially boil down to a numbers game. So it makes perfect sense that the biggest, most controversial recent change to the Academy Awards—the 83rd edition of which airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on ABC—has been one of quantity: the widening of the Best Picture category last year to include 10 nominees, as opposed to the customary five.

"After more than six decades, the Academy is returning to some of its earlier roots, when a wider field competed for the top award of the year," said Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Sid Ganis in a June 2009 press release. Of course, this move wasn't only made out of reverence for tradition, a desire to invoke the halcyon days of Old Hollywood (10 films were last nominated for Best Picture in 1944). Or because the marketplace had become suddenly glutted with masterpieces.

Doubling the number of contenders simply made room for more blockbusters—many felt Christopher Nolan's hugely profitable Dark Knight was robbed earlier in 2009—and allowed more movies to claim Academy laurels in their ad copy, all the while making studios' awards campaigns theoretically less ruthless. And with a greater diversity of movies, more people would presumably feel like they had a horse in the Best Picture race, thus giving them all the more reason to tune in to the end of the ceremony.

Many Oscar observers—perhaps simply caught off-guard by the category-expansion announcement, or irked by the encroachment of the awards show's frantic host and format tinkering into the seemingly more set-in-stone voting rules—cried foul. This roundup of dissenting opinions more or less sums up the major arguments against citing 10 movies: the flood gates are open for the recognition of total crap, the value of the Best Picture statue becomes diminished, etc.

This diluting-quality argument only really holds water for me if you accept the premise that the Academy was previously choosing the five best movies of the year, which, of course, was never once the case. Actually, in its second year, the Best Picture group of 10 seems more and more like an unusual win-win both for Hollywood and audiences. Having a more diverse set of films get recognized—2010's eclectic mix ran the gamut from Avatar to A Serious Man, and this year's from Inception to Winter's Bone, while the majority of years-prior nominees were culled from a less adventurous middle ground—automatically makes the Oscars feel more inclusive, even participatory, in spirit. In this context, the number 10 has a more customizable feel to it—more like another year-end top 10, which so many critics and regular moviegoers use as statements of individual taste—than five, which sometimes felt more like a top-down decree that one must make do with.

There's also the fact that Academy members now vote for Best Picture by ranking the nominated films in order of preference—something the longer list of nominees seems to encourage regular moviegoers to do as well (though, obviously, they can't officially submit these homemade ballots). Before the Academy reveals its top vote-getter on Sunday, and in appreciation of the expanded Best Picture category, I offer my personal top 10 Best Picture nominees, and would encourage readers to do the same in the comments.

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Benjamin Mercer has written on film for The Village Voice, The New York Sun, The L Magazine, and Reverse Shot. He is a copy editor at Bookforum. More

He has also copyedited for two New York dailies: The New York Sun and amNewYork.

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