The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced Wednesday that next year's field of best-picture Oscar nominees will double to 10 finalists.
Begging the question: Are there really five more movies in any year deserving the posterity of an Academy Award nomination for best picture, or is this just a way to squeeze more money out of the awards show?
On the deserving front, it's impossible so far to say for 2009. Studios traditionally save the best for year's end when top 10 lists and award ballots are being decided.
Perhaps the answer is found in 1943, the last time the academy nominated more than five films for Hollywood's most cherished prize.
Casablanca won the Oscar that year, ahead of For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Ox-Bow Incident, The Song of Bernadette and Watch on the Rhine — masterpieces all.
The remainder of the list is comprised of films that haven't withstood the test of time: Madame Curie, The Human Comedy, The More the Merrier, In Which We Serve and Heaven Can Wait (no relation to Warren Beatty's 1978 nominee). Maybe the academy put the five-nominee limit into effect after 1943's race felt padded.
The glorious exception was 1940, when all 10 best-picture nominees from 1939 were bona fide classics now readily available on cable TV and at video stores: The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Stagecoach, Of Mice and Men, Ninotchka, Wuthering Heights, Love Affair, Dark Victory and the winner, Gone with the Wind.
The Oscars didn't have a set number of nominees in those days, ranging between eight and 12 finalists depending upon nomination tallies. If any year was slack or packed with deserving films, the number changed. That would make more sense today, if honoring quality were the academy's true intention.
Like everything else in Hollywood, it's all about money, and not only at the box office.
There's no need to change academy rules to goose overall ticket sales; yearly box office records have been set five times this decade alone. Last year's recession-pressed total of $9.63 billion in ticket sales is the second-highest ever.
Instead, Wednesday's move is another signal of the academy's worry about sagging ratings for the glitzy telecast — and the threat to advertising revenue that causes — chiefly due to increasing public perceptions that voters are out of touch with mainstream movie tastes. The academy previously announced that the 82nd annual Oscars will be presented March 7, two weeks later than usual, to avoid competing with TV coverage of the Winter Olympics.
Shifting the timetable isn't a big deal; the Oscars survived date changes over the past few decades.
But expanding the list of best-picture nominees is the clearest sign yet that the academy is fishing for television viewers.
More movies competing for best picture increases the chance that some nominees will be popular hits that would draw fans to the TV set on Oscar night. It's no coincidence that two of the highest-rated Oscars telecasts ever featured blockbusters Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King winning best picture prizes.
While the Oscars annually seek to honor the highest quality of filmmaking, that quality isn't always reflected at the box office. Otherwise, Spider-Man 3 and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest might be enshrined as best-picture Oscar winners after topping the ticket charts in their respective years.
Complaints from mainstream moviegoers resurfaced last spring when the No. 2 grosser of all time, The Dark Knight ($533.3 million domestic), was bypassed in the 2008 best picture race, despite receiving some of the year's best reviews. WALL-E ($223.8 million) was pegged by many critics as a best picture contender but missed the cut, settling for the best animated feature Oscar, still viewed as a second-tier prize.
Among 2008's five best-picture nominees, only Slumdog Millionaire and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button surpassed $100 million in tickets, the benchmark for a box-office hit. Much of Slumdog Millionaire's domestic box-office haul ($141.3 million) occurred after winning the best picture Oscar, dwarfing the earnings of three other nominees combined (Milk, Frost/Nixon and The Reader).
Nobody can predict whether those extra nominee slots will be filled by movies that the general public embraced, or five more esoteric films that audiences generally haven't seen. The academy hasn't gone "Golden Globes" with the process, dividing movies into dramas (which the Oscars love) and musical/comedy (which the Oscars historically underestimate).
But the best-picture expansion provides the academy with a chance for relevancy again, and all the TV advertising benefits that can bring. Unless voters fill the slots with five more foreign-language, documentary or independent films, or anything starring Daniel Day-Lewis.
Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or [email protected] Read his blog, Reeling in the Years at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.