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Best picture nominees expand to 10 for 2010

Jan. 27, 2010

Image
Associated Press
Jeremy Renner is shown in a scene from "The Hurt Locker," one of the choices for the Best Picture at the Oscars.

By Patrick Goldstein
Los Angeles Times

Here's the dirty little secret about the motion picture academy's controversial scheme to expand this year's best picture nominees from five to 10 movies. It isn't going to make the slightest bit of difference in the Oscar race.

Coming on the heels of some surprise picks over the weekend, including a win for "The Hurt Locker" from the Producers Guild of America and a win for "Inglourious Basterds" from the Screen Actors Guild, the big favorites in the shootout for the all-important Academy Award for best picture look exactly the same as they did before "Avatar," the industry's astounding box-office phenomenon, won the top award at the Golden Globes a week ago.

When the nominations for best picture are announced Feb. 2, 10 movies will get to briefly bask in the spotlight, but for most of them it will be a Pyrrhic victory at best. As virtually every breathless Oscar prognosticator will tell you, there are only four movies that have even a remote chance of winning best picture, and all four of them - "Avatar," "The Hurt Locker," "Inglourious Basterds" and "Up in the Air" - would've made the final cut regardless of whether the academy had five or 10 best picture nominees this year.

The votes are already in (academy ballots were due Saturday) but even without any official count, it's safe to say that all the other films in the discussion are glorified also-rans. It's a four-film race. Period. It will hardly be a surprise to see the final 10 nominations include such worthy contenders as "Precious," "Up," "An Education," "A Serious Man" and perhaps one or two studio blockbusters, but they are just along for the ride; none of the films outside of the Fab Four is going anywhere.

But does this mean it was a terrible idea for the academy to expand its best picture list, as many veteran members have privately groused? I put the question to academy President Tom Sherak, who was one of the biggest advocates for the move.

"I know it's the oldest cliche in the world but, by and large, if people are talking about you, it's always a good thing," says Sherak, who, never at a loss for a quip, excepted from this rule the time his former company, Revolution Pictures, was trying to get moviegoers to see "Gigli." "The move to expand the nominees has created an enormous amount of buzz about the Oscars and the movies that are in contention. A lot of people think it's a good idea, a lot of people don't, but regardless of the pros and cons, it's ignited a debate that's been good for the Oscars."

To hear Sherak tell it, the move was long overdue. "The Oscars are a brand, and if there's a perception that the brand was starting to age, we needed to do something and change with the times," he explains. "If you become stagnant, you become a dinosaur. So we tried to do a few things, and some of them you won't even see until you watch the broadcast, that were designed to help the Oscars become more a part of today's world."

That sounds all well and good, but let's face it, nearly all of those changes, starting with the expansion to 10 nominees, were done to reverse the Academy Awards' prolonged ratings slide, which has seen the broadcast go from being must-see TV to simply the last (and often the snooziest) event of a ve-r-r-r-ry long award season. So the real test of the academy's expansion strategy will come from whether this year's broadcast enjoys a healthy ratings boost.

Unfortunately, Jim Cameron threw a monkey wrench into that plan.

With a box-office blitzkrieg like "Avatar" in the middle of the best picture race, it's almost inevitable that the Oscars will enjoy a hefty ratings boost, just as the broadcast did the year Cameron's smash hit "Titanic" was running the table. One of the key reasons why the Oscars' ratings have dipped so precipitously is that the movies being honored in recent years have had little resonance in Middle America. It's hard to score big ratings when most of the winners of your top categories would be equally at home at the Independent Spirit Awards.

So while it's almost a slam dunk that the Oscar's ratings will go up this year, the lion's share of the credit will go to "Avatar," not the presence of five additional best picture nominees. In essence, this means that the academy probably needs to continue the experiment for a couple more years to see how it plays out in different circumstances. (Luckily, Cameron only makes a movie once every 10 years, so he won't be around to muck up the experiment for a while.)