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; the best actor contest has treated us to Hollywood's favorite son 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 season has been a snooze. The big-canvas "Benjamin Button" has not polarized voters the way a top-nominated movie can. Other contenders, such as "Frost/ Nixon" and "Milk," are admirable but inoffensive choices.

Meanwhile, many races were 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: The Return of the King").

There's no way to legislate a race, but there are structural changes that might add a little juice. Here, then, is a list of five for 2010 — a handful of bold but not unreasonable alterations the Academy could institute to make next year more exciting. Sid Ganis, are you listening?

Add an option for a sixth slot in best picture. The Critics' Choice Awards has 10 best pic nominees. The Globes have allowed for seven. 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, director and screenplay categories. Oscar rules should 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, 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 would have seen "The Dark Knight," "WALL-E" and "Pineapple Express" get major noms. And such a move would recognize that quality filmmaking can come from anywhere.

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 Charlize Theron, who will have "The Road" and "The Burning Plain" out.

Move the show to January. Awards fatigue isn't inevitable — it's a function of six long weeks between the Globes and the Oscars. So why not model the competition for awards on college football, where the less important and more important bowl games are weeks, not months, apart? 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 (also, helpfully, the weekend between the NFL conference championship games and the Super Bowl, with its many available male viewers). All the shows could pool their marketing resources, creating the feeling of a 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 a few well-chosen categories that the public votes on online — and then sees them announced as sidebars (no statuette) during the Oscar telecast — not only would be more inclusive, but also likely would boost ratings. 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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