Thursday, March 5, 2015

Best Picture nominations: who benefits?

It was reported this week that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is considering returning the annual shortlist of Best Picture nominees back to five, after six years in which members could nominate up to ten films. The number of nominations allowed has fluctuated over time, with bigger shortlists from 1931 though 1943 before the traditional list of five became the standard. The current speculation follows widespread dissatisfaction with the results of the Oscars for 2014 and the ratings for the awards show. There's a widespread feeling that expanding the list of nominees failed to accomplish whatever it was meant to do. What, then, are the Oscars meant to do? Presumably, since they're given by people in the movie business, they're given in the hope that prestige will result in increased ticket sales for those films still in first run and increased DVD sales or pay-per-view orders for those out of theaters. On this assumption, expanding the number of nominees was meant to share the wealth since more pictures could then boast of being Best Picture nominees. Was this really the reason? Some stories I've read this week remind us that the expansion followed what was widely perceived as an unjustified snub of The Dark Knight when it failed to get a Best Picture nomination for 2008 despite blockbuster sales and massive critical acclaim. Eight 2014 releases were nominated last January, but the list, with the exception of American Sniper, appeared to show that the Academy had become no less "elitist" in its refusal to recognize the qualities of blockbuster films. The irony here is that in the year when minorities and progressive movie fans complained of a different kind of elitism in the nominations for other categories, Best Picture was one of only two nominations Selma received. Neither that nomination nor that film's victory in the Best Original Song category appeased those "populist" critics who felt that Academy members were more prejudiced against Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, than they were prejudiced against performers or creators of color. But since something like Guardians, which did have some virtues, has already made a mint of money, why shouldn't the Academy try to make some even more deserving films somewhat more marketable? The answer has less to do, I suspect, with whether movies and their studios make more or less money than whether the Academy itself makes more money from the broadcast of the Oscars show. The great hope from this perspective is that more people will watch the show if they have more rooting interest in the nominees, or at least if they don't have to sit through more excerpts from nominated films that didn't interest them before and probably never will.  I don't see how reducing the number of nominees or any other change in the selection process will guarantee spots for popular films when expanding the shortlist apparently failed, but I suspect that if such a retrenchment happens, the real idea behind it won't be to get more people to go to the movies, but to get more people to watch TV one Sunday night. As Samuel Goldwyn might have said, were an old mogul like him alive today, he'd be spinning in his grave.

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