Oscar's rules need refining

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Let's come right out and say it: This has been a ho-hum awards season. Not every race and not the entire time; the best actor contest, for instance, has treated us to the spectacle of one of Hollywood's favorite sons duking it out with its prodigal one. And the awards prospects of "The Dark Knight" unleashed its own mini-drama -- with a controversial ending -- that still reverberates.

But mostly, the last month of the season has been a snooze. The big-canvas "Benjamin Button," while it has its fans and detractors, has not polarized voters the way a top-nominated movie can. Other contenders, like "Frost/Nixon" and "Milk," are admirable works, but not incendiary choices as best picture candidates go.

And of course many of the biggest races seem to have been determined weeks ago, as seemingly everyone in town with a ballot has cast it for "Slumdog Millionaire." That
movie now has a real chance to win an Oscar in every category in which it's nominated, something that's happened only once for a film with at least 10 noms ("The Lord of the Rings").

There's no way to legislate an intriguing race -- that's part of the fun of it -- but there are structural changes that just might add a little juice.

Here, then, is a list of five for 2010 -- a handful of bold but not unreasonable alterations the Academy might consider if they want to make future races more exciting. Sid Ganis, are you
listening ...

-- Add the option for a sixth slot in best picture. The Critics' Choice Awards has 10 best pic nominees. The Globes have allowed for seven. The Emmys this year allowed for a sixth nominee. If a vote is close between the fifth and sixth choices, let them both in. Grousing will never be eliminated, but the choice that ends up on the wrong side of the bubble will be a lot less controversial if it's deemed the seventh-best movie instead of the sixth. Plus, it's one more contender in the mix; that should make things at least 20% more interesting.

-- Mandate that certain genres get a nom. There are 20 slots in the best picture, best director and best screenplay categories. Oscar rules could ensure a comedy, an animated movie and an action-adventure pic each gets at least one of those slots. If voters don't choose it on their own, the Academy could go down the ballots until one makes the cut, then bump out the fifth choice. This will increase the diversity of the selections -- this year probably would have seen "The Dark Knight," "WALL-E" and "Pineapple Express" get a major nom. And it would recognize what most of us already believe: that quality filmmaking can come from any genre.

-- Get rid of the one-actor/one-category rule. Actors increasingly take on several roles in the same year, so why should they be penalized if both performances are standouts? Such a rule this year would have had Kate Winslet competing against herself. Next year, it could do the same for a number of actors, including Charlize Theron, who will have "The Road" and "The Burning Plain" out.

-- Move the show to January. The awards fatigue a lot of us are feeling isn't inevitable -- it's a function of six long weeks between the Globes and the Oscars. Instead, the Academy could get together with other awards bodies and model the entire competition on college football, where the less important and more important bowl games are weeks, not months, apart. So the Globes would take place the first weekend of January, guild awards would be slotted into the middle two weekends and the Oscars would air the last weekend of the month (also, helpfully, the weekend between the NFL conference championship games and the Super Bowl, with its many available male viewers). In the past, other shows have resisted being too close to the Oscars, but that could be addressed with some dollars. All the shows could pool their marketing resources, and in the process they'd create the feeling of a true season instead of a slog.

-- Let the public play a (minor) role. The Academy understandably doesn't want to turn the Oscars into the People's Choice Awards. But it would stand to gain by adding a few well-chosen new awards for which the public votes on online. Then the winners would be announced as sidebars (no statue) during the Oscar telecast. That would add drama -- not to mention recruit viewers who feel the Oscars doesn't speak to them. The Academy still has the power to make fans of non-Oscar movies feel special. It should use that power more often
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