Wednesday, June 15, 2011

New Best Picture Rules...Desperation is Not Becoming

Two years after changing the rules so that ten rather than five films would be nominated for the coveted Best Picture Oscar, it would appear that the bastion of slightly elevated middlebrow establishment masquerading as top-drawer cinematic aesthetic--the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences--is at it again.

They have determined that in order to receive a Best Picture nomination, five percent of a film's votes have to be number one votes on the ranking weighted ballot. This means that the number of nominees will no longer be fixed. From year to year (as long as they keep this policy in place, mind you) the number of films nominated for Best Picture can now range anywhere from five to ten.

I'm not going to talk about how this diminishes the Academy's integrity as a distinguished voting body. That argument has been raised already, by people more eloquent than I with more of an inside baseball perspective. Also, I've long ceased getting all precious about the Academy and the choices they make. They are, after all, just a group of people weighing in on the matter. I do, however find myself wondering what exactly they think it is this move is going to accomplish. And I also wonder about the implementation of such a change following this past particular Oscar year.

What was it about last year that made the AMPAS panic? A year that boasted seven 100 million plus grossing Best Picture nominees and three modest financial successes when one takes relative scale and budget into account. Was it the fact that the Oscar telecast had lower ratings than the previous year, whose Best Picture roster included An Education, A Serious Man and District 9, a veritable "Who's Who" of films your Aunt Martha from Lansing, Kansas has never heard of?

I've already given my thoughts at length about the 83rd Annual Academy Awards telecast, but one thing I neglected to mention was how 2010's crop of nominees were practically gift-wrapped and placed on a silver platter for the Academy. Monster box office? Check. Audience interest? Check. No real stinkers, even by the most lenient, Gene Shalit-y of standards? Check. With so much goodwill going into the ceremony, the producers of the telecast really just had to make it not terrible. Easier said than done, I know. But it's my want, like all internet people, to pass judgment. Still, it should have been like taking an open notes test in school. If you've at least been halfway paying attention and have somewhat of a clue, there's only so much you can fuck it up. Yet everything about the ceremony, from the intriguing but ultimately disappointing choice of host(s) to the confoundedly perplexing/putrid production choices made it a real stinker.

I'm going off on a tangent, but my point is that many of these decisions regarding the tinkering of the Best Picture race are in some way or another related to the telecast. Even while having no real qualms about this particular tweak (more on that later), that simple fact leaves a very bad taste in my mouth. After The Dark Knight (and arguably WALL-E) were not nominated, the list was expanded to ten. Contact me personally if you still think this is a coincidence because I doubt whatever reality-altering medication you're on is over-the-counter and I do enjoy my fun.

With these new rules, we would have likely seen The Kids Are All Right and 127 Hours dropped from last year's roster, leaving us with eight films nominated for the top prize. Some have made the argument that Winter's Bone would have fallen by the wayside as well, but the way Martin Scorsese and Kathryn Bigelow were both thumping for it makes me think it still would have been there. Winter's Bone is precisely the type of film that gets into the race BECAUSE most of it's votes are number one votes. But back to my original question, which is what does this accomplish? Would having The Kids Are All Right or 127 Hours or even Winter's Bone absent from the lineup really have changed anything? Not really. Since October of 2010, the race had been framed as being between The King's Speech and The Social Network. And the producers did their darndest during the telecast to act as if Winter's Bone and The Kids Are All Right didn't exist anyway, so I'm not sure why this change was made. More often than not, we know who's going to win the top prize months before the race is done and no film that's seriously in contention is going to be affected by this switch.

One thing I hope this does accomplish is a return of the lone director nominee, which the ten Best Picture system was threatening to make extinct. I guarantee that although Fernando Meireilles, Pedro Almodovar and David Lynch each received lone Best Director nominations that neither City of God, Talk to Her nor Mulholland Drive would have had enough number one votes to make the Best Picture cut under this newly implemented system. The Academy probably hopes to wind up with a group of Best Picture nominees that people are genuinely excited about rather than six or seven passion projects and three or four ho-hum filler nominees. I can understand, at least on paper, how the decision makers thought that this new policy was the best way to accomplish that goal. But we don't have to look back too far in history, when the Academy nominated only five films, to find sore thumbs like Finding Neverland, Ray, Seabiscuit, Frost/Nixon, Chocolat and The Cider House Rules. These titles all share the dubious distinction of films I can't imagine anyone in a million years being passionate enough about to put at the top of their ballots for Best Picture nominations. And yet there they were...and in years of five, no less. My apologies to anyone who absolutely loves any of the aforementioned titles. I'm not making fun of you. I just didn't know you existed.

I'd be surprised to see this policy last beyond five years. It's nice to stretch and try new things, but reputable organizations, especially those as old as the Academy thrive on consistency. A rotating number of nominees in any category is so...Broadcast Film Critics Association. And I don't think the Academy wants to be the Broadcast Film Critics Association. While a fiscally naive sentiment, I think the Academy should simply embrace the fact that they have their tastes, which are sometimes anomalous and strange to lay outsiders like us. Moves like this almost always read as an apology to the public for the Academy's cinematic proclivities, which isn't what the Oscars are about. Or at least, it's not what they should be about. I've said it many times, but it bears repeating. It is a show, like the Tonys, which is about honoring something that a small segment of the viewing population is interested in/knowledgeable of. That's fine. But I hope the Academy never ceases to consider the people in the room who they're honoring, who the show is actually for. Most people can smell desperation and it's a scent that few are attracted to. So, to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences I say stop scrambling. Relax. Take a breather. And, most importantly, make it about the movies.