Awards season launch

Twice the best picture nominations keep experts guessing

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This changes everything.

That's the thinking in the awards community as the doubling of best picture nominees from five to 10 begins to reshape Hollywood's annual race for the top Oscar.

What has become a ritual for studio marketers, consultants and a growing fraternity of awards-watchers in the media has now been upended by the most significant change to the Academy Awards in decades. As a result, tried-and-true campaign strategies are being tweaked, the definition of an "awards movie" is being re-evaluated, and some are even questioning whether the value of the best picture nomination has been diluted.

But as awards season gets under way, one thing is certain: More films have a shot at those extra slots, leading to what should be one of the most competitive campaigns in years. How exactly the race will play out is still a big mystery.

"There isn't a consensus about this year because nobody knows what this change means," says veteran awards consultant Tony Angellotti, who is handling Universal's slate and Disney's animated contenders.

For instance, if the expanded field might allow a well-reviewed summer crowd-pleaser like "District 9" or "The Hangover" to snag a best picture nomination, how should those films be repositioned for the Academy? Will an animated hit like "Up" or "Coraline" or a documentary like "Capitalism: A Love Story" finally have a legitimate shot? What about the tiny films with showcase performances -- like "Precious" or "A Single Man" -- that typically generate an acting nomination but fall short of the big prize?

While the Academy's intention might have been to open the door to more widely seen movies like "The Dark Knight," which was shut out of the best picture category last year, others believe the expanded field might just mean more slots for carefully positioned art-house films. "In a way, there is more opportunity for our pictures to get in there," says Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker, who returns to the awards race with a strong lineup led by "An Education."

"It's great for independent films because it levels the playing field," agrees David Fenkel, a partner in Oscilloscope Laboratories, which is pushing "The Messenger." "It gives more opportunity for films that in the past may not have had the resources to campaign against the bigger guys. When you have films that have great word-of-mouth and great critical acclaim, with more slots you're going to see more worthy films recognized."

The field might have been more clearly defined if the Academy had broken its 10 nominations up, with five in the drama category and five comedies. But insiders say the board opted against it because it didn't want to emulate the Golden Globes. The race might also have been different if the Academy had opted for seven or eight nominees -- but it felt 10 was a round number familiar from "10 best" lists.

Megan Colligan, co-president of marketing at Paramount, believes the expanded field could also open the door for serious consideration of nontraditional films like her studio's "Star Trek," as well as more typical awards bait like "Up in the Air." She says getting directors nominated will be even more important this year, given that the best picture winner likely will come from the films whose directors make the field of five in that category.

"What's going to happen is that people are really going to look to the director category to help define the pictures," Colligan predicts.

Veteran marketer Dennis Rice already is worrying that at least half the best picture nominees won't have their director nominated.

"There are unintended consequences (of the change)," Rice says. "A lot of times a director is nominated because he is truly the filmmaker, the guy in charge from start to finish making a movie as great as it can be; so how do you nominate five pictures without recognizing their directors?"

In addition to an increased focus on directors, awards experts predict that critics' year-end 10 best lists could become better predictors of the best picture field, even if the films that pop up on multiple lists are not traditional Academy fare. Many also believe that the Golden Globes -- which honor 10 films each year -- could become a more important predictor of Oscar's 10 favorites, especially if more commercial movies like "Julie & Julia" or "Inglourious Basterds" make strong showings.

While awards marketers have for years focused on energizing specific constituencies of the Academy, this year those efforts might intensify because a nomination can come without a film necessarily earning broad support.

"You'll be looking for evidence of an emotional vote favored by a significant sector of the membership, such as a breakthrough performance," Angellotti says. "You can niche market."

Cynthia Swartz, who runs awards campaigns as a partner at 42 West, agrees that even with the Academy asking voters to list their choices in preferential order, "You'll still need fewer votes to get a best picture nomination. That will make people look at it differently. That might change people's strategy."

Plus, with 10 nominees splitting the ultimate vote, the film that gets the most nominations could have an even greater advantage this year. "That will be the favorite to win," Swartz says. So below-the-line categories might be even more important.

Another side effect of the broader field is the potential impact a nomination might have on a film's boxoffice or DVD numbers. If there's the perception that a best picture nom is not worth what it once was, studios might not campaign as vigorously.

"For years the studio number crunchers have calculated the value of a best picture nomination based on five nominees and then budgeted marketing campaigns based on what they felt it would mean in theaters, in international, in home video, for TV sales," says a veteran marketing consultant. "Now, with 10 nominees, all those calculations are out the window. They are confused. Nobody is going to know what it means until it happens."

Barker, for one, says it's business as usual at his company. "(The expanded field) doesn't change our process at all," he says. "A lot of people feel the 10 will somehow make it not good for the films that are nominated, but I don't believe that until I see it."

Newly installed AMPAS president Tom Sherak has carefully stayed out of the strategy debate.

"That's their business," Sherak says of the studios. "That's not the business we're in. This wasn't done for the studios or not for the studios. We did this because we thought it was the right thing to do at this point in time and if it's not the right thing, we will change it."

Sherak says the Academy's board of governors considered the impact a change would have on the awards race, part of a long deliberation. The idea, he says, began with last year's show producers, Laurence Mark and Bill Condon, who suggested having 10 nominees would increase excitement. Outgoing Academy president Sid Ganis was a key supporter of the change, but there were voices on all sides.

Since the announcement, Sherak has heard from all corners of the Academy. "You get the good calls and the not-so-good calls," he says. "People say, 'You're going to hurt the movies.' Then you get the good calls saying, 'Wow, it's innovative.' "

Ganis, who served two terms as Academy president before Sherak was elected in August, also insists the change was not to make room for more popular wide-release pictures, though if that happens it wouldn't be such a bad thing.

"The intention was to broaden the field, make it more interesting, exciting ... and stretch the possibilities for fine films to be recognized," says Ganis, who remains on the board of governors. "It's the Oscars. It's the big baby. It's the one that's the most fun to play with, so now those who wish to participate, and many do, will participate in a much wider field, one that will be harder to handicap."

Having 10 picture nominees is not the only factor that will reshape this awards season.

Another key change is the longer time period after the New Year before ballots are due. Last season, that window was barely a week; this year it will be closer to three weeks -- which means more opportunities to screen movies, run For Your Consideration ads and generate interest before ballots are due Jan. 23.

"That's a pretty substantial amount of time," Colligan says. "So in terms of how you spend your advertising dollars, how much longer people have to make a choice, how many more movies they have time to consider this season, all those things go into your thought process about how to approach a campaign."

Ultimately, whether the 10 nominees end up a permanent fixture of the Oscars or merely a one-hit wonder could depend in large part on the films that are nominated this year. Sherak welcomes the change -- and the controversy it has brought.

"I respect the opinions of those people who talk about what a terrible idea this is," he says. "But the bottom line is we are going to try it -- and you can either say, 'What a great job you guys did,' or 'Boy, did you guys fall on your face.' Hopefully the public will say 'It is even better this year.' "

Matthew Belloni contributed to this report.