Why There Are Only Two Nominees for This Year's Best Original Song Oscar (Analysis)

Muppets - H 2012

[NOTE: A slightly different version of this story appeared in the most recent issue of The Hollywood Reporter.]

Last month, when the nominations were announced for the 84th Oscars, the most common reaction -- after "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close for best picture?!" -- was, "Why are there only two nominees for best original song?!" (For the record, they are "Man or Muppet" from The Muppets, music and lyrics by Flights of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie, and "Real in Rio" from Rio, music by piano maestro Sergio Mendes and Carlinhos Brown, lyrics by Siedah Garrett.)

Indeed, in the 76 years in which the best original song Oscar has been presented (it was introduced at the seventh Oscars), there have never been this few nominees in the category. For its first 11 years, any number of songs could be nominated, and as many as 14 were (at the 18th Oscars); ever since, though, the Academy has capped the category at five. Before the 45th Oscars, the Academy decided that, henceforth, in years in which “fewer than 20 qualified works” were submitted, there would be only three nominees (which is why there was that number at the 61st, 78th, and 81st Oscars), or, if there were fewer than four qualified submissions, no award would be presented at all.

Then, before the 82nd Oscars, the Academy did with the best original song category what they did with the best picture category before this year’s ceremony: facing accusations that they had been filling out the category with unworthy nominees, they raised the bar to make it harder to get nominated and no longer guaranteed any specific number. There can now be anywhere from two to five (there were four last year), or none at all, depending on how the 236 members of the Academy’s music branch score the submissions. They screen clips of each song in its respective film and assign them all a grade(from best to worst, 10, 9.5, 9, 8.5, 8, 7.5, 7, 6.5 or 6). If two or more songs score 8.25 or higher, then each of them -- or the five highest-scoring among them -- will be nominated. If only one meets that benchmark, then that and the next highest scorer will be nominated. And if no songs meet it, then no award will be presented at all.

This means that, of this year’s 39 approved submissions, no more than two songs -- and possibly as few as one -- scored 8.25 or higher. It means that songs by the likes of Mary J. Blige, Elton John, Lady Gaga, Chris Cornell, Sinead O’Connor, will.i.am, Pink, Brad Paisley, Robbie Williams, Zooey Deschanel, Zac Brown and even Academy favorite Alan Menken did not. (Blige Tweeted that it "feels like the Academy is being mean" to only nominate two when it could have nominated five). And, as even Bruce Broughton, the chair of the Academy’s music branch, has had to admit, it means that we can probably expect another change of the rules for the best original song category.