Why Oscars' 10 Best Picture Nominees Experiment Failed and What Happens Now

Oscar Statue Portrait 2011
Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Oscar Statues on display at the Time Warner Center in New York February 25, 2010 during the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences "Meet the Oscars, New York " exhibition presented by Kodak. The exhibit will be open to the public until March 7, 2010 the day of the 82nd Academy Awards.

On Tuesday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences shockingly switched from 10 best picture noms to five or six or seven -- or whatever number between five and 10 (although almost certainly lower than 10) results from a new formula THR explains here. Why change after the equally shocking change from five to ten noms two years ago? And who wins and loses under the new system?

"It’s probably a smart move," says one academy member. "Ten was stupid in the first place. I talked to 60 people, five of them had 10 best picture picks. Let’s face it, they just don’t make movies like they used to. But nobody wanted to object because the goals were obviously noble. It wasn’t just that Warner made them feel bad after Dark Knight got snubbed [in 2009]." A source tells THR the 2009 board of governors' vote to make it ten noms was unanimous, though Tom Hanks abstained.  "How in the f--- could they have had a unanimous vote with one abstention and yet reverse themselves so completely two years later?" asks the amazed academy member. "They were going to leave it for three years."

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Many think ten noms was a brilliant idea. "It kept the conversation really open," says a campaign consultant. "You felt an obligation to watch Blue Valentine or The Messenger. You had to consider lots of films because they were in conversation. The swirl of conversation is good for business, as we all saw this year."

But good for whose business? "Making it 10 didn’t get you Avatars and Batmans. It got you Winter’s Bone and The Kids Are All Right," says the academy member. Because the new ballot system heavily weights a voter's first choice and de-emphasizes fourth and fifth choices, a 2010 nom like The Blind Side probably would face lower odds in 2012. "I wonder how many No. 1 academy votes it got," says the consultant. "But I think it got a tremendous amount of 2-5 votes.” "In a year with five, would you have had Kids Are All Right and Winter’s Bone as best picture noms?" says the academy member. "You can’t say for sure that they wouldn’t have been in, because there was In the Bedroom and Capote [when there were five noms]. But 2010 showed that ten noms was going to benefit the indies. Winter’s Bone, still a terrific little film nobody has seen, won out over The Town because the process favored indies."

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Animation was another bone of contention. "There were some within the academy who hated that an animated film got in there [in best picture, as Up and Toy Story 3 did], because they have their own category," says the academy member. Animation people were peeved that AMPAS only permitted three noms in that category last year. To soothe both camps, AMPAS made an animated feature less likely to show up in best picture noms (unless it gets many No. 1 votes) and increased the probable number of noms in the animation category. If there are 15 animated feature releases in 2011 as in 2010, they will get four animation noms, not three as in 2010.

One chief reason for the new best picture system is that with 10 noms, Oscar telecast ratings declined nine percent in 2011, and so did AMPAS's reputation for high best picture standards. "They felt, 'Omigod, we got hammered, derided, chewed up and spit out by the press who said we might as well be the Golden Globes,' " says the academy member. The new, hard-to-grasp mathematical voting system insulates AMPAS from criticism. "They thought, 'Let's let the algebra do it for us."

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The new rules may make campaigning more frantic and competition more bitter -- and entertaining. Or it could become more boring with fewer outlier wild cards. "That's true," says a campaign consultant. "Slots 9 and 10 are fun to play with. The effect of that is actually really good for the top two or three films as well. You grow less tired of the race because in phase 1, five films are safe and then there's five [long shots] we're going to talk about and sort out. It gives the frontrunners a bit of rest." Would last year have been more fun with a higher percentage of stories about The King's Speech vs. The Social Network?

Still, it's possible to hail the academy leadership both for trying the 10-picture experiment and abandoning it. "They move with the times," says the academy member. "For old guys with white hair, they’re really shakin’ it up."

What ex-AMPAS president Sid Ganis told THR in February still holds true today, because he was dropping broad hints about what was to come: "Two years ago we said, wait a minute, let’s go from five to 10 best picture nominations. But year after year we’re altering the rules to keep up with the times, logic, what’s happening in the industry, getting feedback from everybody from members to filmmakers who aren’t happy with what we’re doing. So we look at what we’re doing to see if it’s right."