Oscars: What's the Ideal Size of the Best Picture Category? (Podcast)

The Academy Awards Statue and Sign - H 2012
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The Academy Awards Statue and Sign - H 2012

When three highly opinionated cineastes gather in a room, it's hard to find agreement about anything, as I was reminded this week when I sat down with Marcia Nasatir, the first woman to serve as a vice president of production at a Hollywood studio and a member of the Academy's executives branch for the past 40 years, and Howard Rodman, a noted screenwriter who is vice president of the Writers Guild of America West and has been a member of the Academy's writers branch since 2009, to record the third installment of The Geezer and The Kid podcast.

Not that I'm complaining — it was a treat to get to pick the formidable brains of Marcia, my beloved co-host and the creator of our podcast's title, and Howard, who was good enough to be our first guest co-host (we're going to have a different one each episode), over the course of a lively 50-minute conversation.

(Attention completionists: you can hear episode one, which dealt with the 87th Academy Awards and 50 Shades of Grey, by clicking here, and episode two, about the films of 2015's first quarter, by clicking here.)

There was one thing about which we all agreed: namely, that it would be a mistake for the Academy's Board of Governors to restrict the number of best picture nominees to five, as they are reportedly considering. The category was capped at five nominees from 1943 through 2009 before it was expanded to 10 and then, since 2011, anywhere from five to 10, depending on a convoluted voting system.

"I'm in the more is better school," Howard said. "When they opened up the number of nominees from five to 10, I think it really was designed... to make room for the quality big-budget studio spectacle movies — i.e. Chris Nolan's — and, oddly, it didn't do that... The plate of smaller movies was just larger, and I actually think that's a good thing. Having an Academy Award nomination draws attention to a movie, and some of the films that it draws attention to... can very much benefit from it. I don't see a downside. I don't think that having five nominees makes them more special or wonderful than having eight nominees. And, in terms of the film that ends up eventually winning, I don't think that whether the field is 10, eight, seven or five makes a significant difference to what films ends up being the one."

Marcia concurred: "I'm with Howard. Have 10. It's only about selling the movie. … The more possibilities we have, the better off we [in the film industry] are."

We also talked about the lack of Academy-friendly movies outside of the last quarter of the year. While emphasizing that genre films are not inherently bad and Oscar-bait films are not inherently good, Howard did still vent about the decided imbalance that now exists between the two: "There is something deeply, deeply wrong with the fact that for 10 months of the year, what we get is stuff blowing up, glass shattering and costumed superheroes, to earn us 'the right,' for two months of the year, to get great men — great mathematicians, great physicists, great Civil Rights leaders, great snipers, you know?" He added, "I think that the movie industry has forgotten its obligation to its audience. You know, the logic of the movie industry these days seems to be the logic that William S. Burroughs ascribed to the heroin trade, which is, 'Don't improve the product. Degrade the buyer.'"

Marcia wanted to defend genre films, to an extent: "I saw Furious 7 [the action-thriller that topped the box office last weekend] and it has incredible stuff," she said, granting that some of the acting and dialogue left something to be desired. She also mentioned that she worked at United Artists when they decided to make the first Rocky film in 1976. "It was a wonderful script and we made it," she said, as a low-budget indie — "and then I think there have been six more," each one seemingly more over-the-top than the one before it. That, in large part, is the problem that I have with the business today. Rather than trying new and original ideas, studios increasingly and almost exclusively gravitate toward things that feel like safe bets — primarily remakes, sequels and adaptations of already popular material of some other form.

Howard, after recounting a troubling visit to a major studio's conference room, diagnosed the problem this way: "I'm concerned that [studio execs] focus too much on not what they might really feel themselves about a script, but on what they've been told the demographics are. … By and large, the studios these days do not work forward from material but backward by release date. … The studios have forgotten their dream." He continued, "What used to be considered a 'movie' is now considered an 'art film' by the studios, and if the studios would recognize that those movies were, in fact, movies, then we would have them all year-round the way we used to have them year-round and nobody would consider that extraordinary."

How did things end up this way? Well, for one thing, the studios morphed from being independent operations (i.e., the actual Warner brothers owned and ran Warner Bros.) to being small pieces of giant conglomerates (i.e., Warner Bros. is now part of the multinational media powerhouse Time Warner) that expect them to be profitable every time out — or else execs' heads will roll. But another factor, Howard pointed out, is the marked improvement of the quality of television since the advent of cable in the late '70s and, more recently, pay cable, premium cable and streaming options as well. As he noted, a number of very talented writers who failed to find much of an audience in the world of film have become gods in the world of television (i.e., Vince Gilligan and Lena Dunham), and a number of great writers who found fame through the medium of film decades ago, but fewer opportunities since the business changed, ended up turning to TV as well (i.e., Robert Towne and the late Frank Pierson were both part of Mad Men's writers room).

Marcia mentioned that she was tired of complaints about Academy members being predominately old, white and male, but Howard countered that it is incumbent upon the Academy, generally, and its writers branch, specifically, to do a much better job of promoting diversity. "The last statistic that I saw of the writers branch: 98 percent white," he said. "I actually think that is a problem, because even though the Academy reflects the industry, the Academy also needs to help lead the industry where the industry has gone astray, and I cannot believe that 98 percent of the best writers in America are white." Marcia replied, "That's scary. I didn't know that." The fact that television networks face different sorts of commercial pressures than film studios do, she suggested, might explain why more people of color seem to write for and show up in TV shows than in films, citing the shows of Shonda Rhimes and Empire as examples.

Finally, we each took a turn recommending a movie that we recently saw and liked a lot. Marcia vouched for Richard Curtis' Woman in Gold, a drama based on the true story of a Holocaust survivor trying to recover an emotionally and financially valuable painting that was stolen from her during World War II by the Nazis, stating, "[Helen Mirren] is wonderful." Howard championed Ana Lily Amirpour's A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, a black-and-white vampire film that's set in Bakersfield but entirely in Farsi, which he said "gave me hope that if somebody has a vision that is specific enough," it can result in a great film. And I heralded two films that played the fall film fest circuit last year but are only hitting U.S. theaters this spring: the Noah Baumbach comedy While We're Young, with Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts, and Olivier Assayas' Clouds of Sils Maria, with Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart.

If you leave questions and/or observations in the comments section below, Marcia and I will be sure to acknowledge them. We can also be reached via Twitter — me @ScottFeinberg and Marcia @MarciaNasatir. And we thank you for your interest in The Geezer and The Kid.