Why the Academy Should've Reduced the Number of Best Picture Nominees (Opinion)

Dolby Theater Oscars Interior - H 2013
Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

Dolby Theater Oscars Interior - H 2013

What happens when there are eight or nine best picture nominees, but only five director nominees?

In January 1927, Louis B. Mayer was playing a casual game of solitaire with actor Conrad Nagel and a few others, when Nagel tossed out an idea: that the various branches of the film business should team up to form a new organization, designed to help everybody in the industry. “Why don’t you get together, then, and try it out?” said Mayer.

Days later, the MGM chief invited some 36 industry members to dinner, and that evening they formed the International Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, an institution that formally came into being in May 1927, when it was incorporated without the word “International.” 

This was the beginning of the Academy — in large part a creation to preempt the formation of unions — and giving out awards was just an afterthought. Nobody then could have imagined that the Oscars would become the very raison d’être of the Academy, at least as far as the public was concerned, its awards the definition of pedigree and success.

"[Eighty] percent of the paperwork in the first years of the Academy concerned the issues of standardization of the many competing formats that derived from the early years of sound,” writes Scott Eyman, author of Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer. “The awards themselves were very much a left-handed endeavor.”

Almost nine decades later, there’s nothing left-handed about them. Instead, the Oscar has become arguably the best-known award in the world, outside the Nobel Prize.

It is precisely for this reason that the Academy is making a mistake in spreading its wealth too liberally and allowing too many movies to be nominated for best picture. An excess of nominations inevitably diminishes prestige.

That mistake was ratified this month, when a rules revision failed to reduce the number and bring it down from the current maximum of 10 to its historical five.

The problem goes back to 2009, when the Academy shifted its policy after The Dark Knight and Wall-E failed to get nominated. In a move to add more mainstream hits to the specialty fare that had been dominating the Oscars, the board of governors expanded the number of nominees to 10 — but in only one category, best picture.

Soon after, it made a hasty course correction and altered the number again, choosing a flexible system that opted for anything from five to 10 — the range that is currently nominated. (This year there were eight nominees; the previous three years had nine each.)

The main goal of all this was to cast a wide enough net that commercial blockbusters would also get nominated, thereby bringing in a larger television audience. But that goal has largely failed. Ratings are down, and only one movie at the most recent Academy Awards was a genuine blockbuster, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper. (There’s debate about whether that picture would have been nominated if there were only five slots.)

Furthermore, expanding the number of nominees has had the curious effect of making the Oscars seem even less mainstream, thanks to the addition of more indie releases. Rather than have a balance of studio and art-house films, audiences now have the impression that the Oscars are simply a more polished version of the Spirit Awards.

In opting for more pictures, the Academy has risked tarnishing the value of a nomination. “It’s hard to find 10 movies that should be nominated,” says producer and former studio chief Bill Mechanic. “Truth is, it’s hard to find even five right now.”

Getting nominated will mean less unless the Academy sticks to the following tried and true principles:

1. An award or nomination must be exceedingly rare and difficult to obtain.

Having only five nominees makes the Oscar pool precious; when there are as many as 10, there’s a perception that any reasonably good motion picture will qualify. “Reasonably good” is no substitute for excellence. “The more films are nominated, the more that honor is diluted,” says producer Adam Fields.

2. The process of selection must be transparent and fair.

The convoluted method by which multiple nominees are chosen is baffling to many of the voters. Confusion leads to a diminished faith in the results. “To this day, I’m still confused by the whole process,” says Fields. “How they get ranked and how many votes they need, I don’t even understand.”

3. Awards should be consistent in their logic.

What happens when there are eight or nine best-picture nominees, but only five director nominees? The answer is a split in people’s interpretation of what a nomination means. There is now an A-list and a B-list among the pictures, sending a message that one nomination somehow matters less than another.

There is, of course, a counter-argument that more nominations will allow more films to be recognized, and that some level of pragmatism has to be considered. “It would be great if we lived in a perfect world and you never had to think about how much money a movie made,” says producer Steve Stabler, “but that’s not the way the business works.”

Still, if pragmatism rather than idealism governs Academy thinking, audiences will eventually lose faith in Oscar.

Not that Mayer had that much faith himself. “I found that the best way to handle [moviemakers] was to hang medals all over them,” he said. “If I got them cups and awards they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created.”