In Which I’m Surprisingly OK with the New Oscar Rules

The nice folks over at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced yesterday the latest changes to the rules governing the Academy Awards – most notably, a decision to change yet again to the Best Picture category. The bad news: they’re not going back to the traditional five nominees. The good news: except when they are. Wait, what?

2010 Oscar Nominations

In an effort to find compromise between those who feel five nominees aren’t enough* and those who feel ten nominees are way too much, the new rule states the top category can contain anywhere between five and ten titles in any given year. To earn the title of Best Picture Nominee, a film must receive at least 5% of all first-place votes in the initial round of voting. Five percent sounds small, but when you consider the size of the Academy’s voting ranks – combined with the breadth of eligible films in a given year – finding a single movie that five percent of the Academy will place at the top of their nomination ballot is in fact a feat reserves for only a handful of a year’s best (or, at least, most talked about) movies.

According to the study the Academy used to determine the rule change, the top vote-getters averaged just 20.5% of all first-place votes, while in every year studied (2001-2008), the total number of films hitting the 5% minimum ranged between five and nine. This suggests (albeit with a stretch) some titles from the last two years may have stumbled their way into a Best Picture nomination with a ridiculously small number of voters actually considering them worthy. (While neither the Academy nor PricewaterhouseCoopers ever reveal actual vote counts, we can reasonably assume somebody involved in this study is sitting in a corner making coughing sounds that sound an awful lot like The Blind Side and The Kids Are All Right.)

The Academy is spinning this new rule as a way of keeping “surprise.” Since the number of nominees won’t be announced until the titles themselves are, Oscar watchers will have to curb their smugness when making predictions and talk of “sure things” will be reduced, all while the Academy ensures extra buzz as talk of “ooh, it’s seven this year!” fills the air for a few extra hours.

But that suggests the new rule is as empty-gimmicky as the ten nominee rule was when it was added in 2008. A better selling point is in the sense of fairness it presents: the Academy can now dodge the heat they got when a popular movie (say, WALL-E or The Dark Knight) was bumped for missing the cut-off by just a hair, and they can also dodge the heat they got when it was clear they couldn’t find ten worthy movies for inclusion and had to settle for mediocre fare (say, The Fighter or Winter’s Bone) just to round up.

Granted, I’d still prefer to go back to the basic five-nominee system – not just for tradition’s sake, but because every Oscar race always comes down to two movies with occasionally a third as a spoiler, so adding more also-rans ultimately does nothing to change the suspense of Oscar Night. But as long as the Academy is intent on sticking with a “the more the merrier” approach, it makes sense to use a system that attempts to maximize fairness and eliminate embarrassment.

The Academy’s press release, detailing the new Best picture system as well as multiple other rule changes (mostly minor “housekeeping” stuff), can be found here.

*I maintain that nobody ever thought five nominees were too few. The big problem with the 2008 Oscars was that a couple blockbusters with decent buzz got snubbed because voters fell for a Weinstein campaign instead. It’s a matter of Oscar voters’ tastes. No amount of system-fixing can change that.

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