How Many Best Picture Nominees Is Enough?


Pressed in to being optimistic about this year's Oscar nominees for Best Picture by my partner around these parts, I offhandedly showed some appreciation for the expansion of the field from five nominees to as many as 10 over the last few years:

I’m not sure I buy the notion that in toto this is a “bland” list of nominees. Any list with Her, 12 Years a SlaveGravity and The Wolf of Wall Street has some life. Yes, I would have rounded it out with less bland choices, but maybe we should be relieved something as quirky and different as Spike Jonze’s Her did get a nod. This is the positive part (see, I’m doing it!) of having up to 10 nominees — recognition for films that aren’t as stodgy and staid as the Academy would go for reflexively with a shorter list of nominees.

Look, the Academy is basically your parents. They aren’t cool. As a body, they don’t “get” films like Inside Llewyn Davis, generally speaking. (Again, Her being nominated feels miraculous.) At least with the extra slots for nominees, they seem to recognize their uncoolness and guard against it in some measure. It could be worse. We know this because, well, just look at history.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to expand the field in 2009 after the bewildering snub of The Dark Knight the year prior, the logic being that a broader swath of nominees would better safeguard against something like that happening again. It's a logic that has seemed sound to me ever since, one that not only protects the Academy from its worst tendencies but also seems appropriate as the volume of film releases rises exponentially.

Funny thing about that logic, though -- it might have some undesirable unintended consequences as both Grantland's Mark Harris and The Dissolve's Jen Chaney wrote last week. Puzzlingly, with five years of an expanded Best Picture field in the books, the overall Oscar field (meaning the number of films nominated for various awards) has actually shrunk in scope.

Wrote Harris:

Last week, shortly after the nominations were announced, Nick Davis, an associate professor in gender and sexuality studies at Northwestern University who maintains a passionate avocational interest in Oscar history, tweeted a jarring statistic: This year, he noted, the “top six” Oscar categories — picture, director, and the four acting races — comprised a total of just 11 films. I found that number perplexing because it seemed counterintuitive. How could a year that was widely heralded as one of the best in a long time for American movies yield the smallest — the least diverse, if you will — pool of contenders in recent memory? I decided to poke at the stat a bit more by adding in the two writing categories for a “top eight.” Those results were scarcely better: This year’s major-category nominations — 44 in all — were spread among just 12 films. (The only non–Best Picture nominees to receive any major category recognition this year were August: Osage County, Blue Jasmine, and Before Midnight.)

That’s the fewest in 30 years. What’s more, the second-lowest number of films represented in the major nominations in the last 30 years — 14 — happened just one year ago. And the third-lowest also happened in the five years since the rule change. The inescapable truth: Best Picture may have gotten bigger, but the Oscars have gotten smaller.

Piling on, Chaney's piece laid waste to a number of the supposed ancillary benefits to having more Best Picture nominees purported by those in favor of the expansion. Namely, that the Academy still regularly omits films like The Dark Knight, that the ratings for the broadcast haven't improved, that the race hasn't offered more in the way of surprises, that the additional nominations haven't had a notable effect at the box office, and that the prestige of the award has been diluted. Her first and last points are subjective and arguable, but the middle three aren't.

Read in combination with Harris' (which focuses more on the reality of the voting process), these pieces paint a disturbing picture if you care about the direction of the Oscars (and if you do, you should absolutely read both).

I'm one of those people who cares, and I'm certainly not thrilled that the Oscar universe seems to be narrowing. But I'm standing by my words for now, which isn't an easy thing to do for someone who has great appreciation for sabermetrics, big data, math-driven analysis and the like.

First, I must say that despite the compelling statistical evidence presented, a five-year sample size, while definitely enough to establish a trend, doesn't seem like enough to make this an open-and-shut case. We might be close to the point where the Academy ought to throw up its hands, declare "We tried!" and put everything back the way it was. But I don't think we're there yet.

Second, and more importantly, Harris and Chaney mostly skate by the existential question of what the Oscars should be in a perfect world. Harris does acknowledge that "the Academy Awards can’t be perfect" but that we "want them to continue to strive to be better." I agree completely. But he never stops to wonder whether the nomination of a greater variety of films for the big awards is actually positive. Which is fine because he might not question that notion himself. In most things, a "big tent" seems to be a mostly good thing, and if you count the Oscars among most things, then, yes, there does appear to be a problem with the expanded field.

But for me, they don't. This is going to seem awfully reductive and maybe deliberately obtuse, but I would argue that the only thing that really "matters" (if any of it matters at all) is the Best Picture award. Everything else is just immediately forgettable window dressing, a bunch of fancy dresses and self-congratulatory speeches on the way to one big moment.

During our Best Picture chat last week my colleague wrote that, "the Academy should serve as sort of a historical society, documenting the year in cinema." That's a beautiful sentiment to which I subscribe.

Combined with my belief that the Best Picture award is the only thing that really matters, though, it means that I can't bring myself to care much if the other categories are negatively impacted by what I still see as an improvement. There's a depressing realpolitik to all of this. Harris' theory about why this shrinking has happened will take a lot of the luster of those gold statues if you don't know much about the campaigning and the voting process.

An expanded field for the Best Picture protects the Academy from itself (sorry, I'm just not buying Chaney's contention that any Dark Knights have been missed in the last five years). For me, someone who exalts the Best Picture above all other awards, that's a price worth paying even if it hurts the other major categories. Whether you agree with me or not, probably depends on what you think the Oscars ought to be. And that's the question we all need to answer before the Academy starts to consider more changes.