With the number of recent celebrity deaths, I fear this particular passing went unnoticed and largely under-reported. The Oscars heaved their last breath of relevance on Wednesday morning, June 24, 2009 when Sid Ganis (President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) announced that beginning with the 2009 awards (scheduled for March 7, 2010), the Academy would nominate ten films for its coveted best picture award; breaking a sixty-five year tradition of only nominating five films to compete for this award. Someone cue the orchestra to strike up a dirge. May the Oscars rest in peace along side all the other icons that died last week.
Mr. Ganis used his most sincere voice when describing this change as “a bombshell” (Boucher, Abramowitz, and Eller. “Oscar’s Big Plot Twist: 10 Best-Pic, not 5.” Los Angeles Times 25 Jun 2009). The Academy wants to reclaim its history, going back to 1944, when Casablanca was the last film to win the best picture award from among ten films nominated that year. I suppose over the years Mr. Ganis received his share of acting tips from many a best actor nominee, because he certainly sounded sincere at the press conference announcing this rule change. Nonetheless, I deduce a more accurate reason for the sudden rule change from Mr. Ganis’ quote, “… of course, there is a hope that there’ll be even more interest in the Oscars around the world.” (James, Meg. “Behind the Academy Awards Best Picture Decision.” Los Angeles Times 25 Jun 2009)
The Oscars began their death march in 1953, the year the awards were first televised. The shows have been sucking air like some bad asthmatic for the last decade. The reality being steadily declining television ratings for the awards show translates to less advertising revenue for ABC (the network that broadcasts the show), which makes it less profitable for ABC to pay the multimillion-dollar licensing fee to the Academy for the rights to broadcast the awards show. Couple this latest Academy decision with its decision, in October 2008, to lift the fifty year ban on film studios buying advertising during the awards show (James, Meg. “Behind the Academy Awards Best Picture Decision.” Los Angeles Times 25 Jun 2009) – that effectively increasing the number of potential ad buyers – and a truer motive comes into focus. ABC and the board of governors of the Academy are looking to make the awards more popular to hopefully increase the television audience that in turn increase the advertising revenue and keep the profit stream flowing for all involved. Popularity is a powerful thing, but the Academy may discover that chasing it brings some unintended consequences.
To just playing naysayer (or possibly soothsayer) for a moment. By adding the five films the Academy risks skewing its voting process. Now potentially an even smaller block of members could push through the nomination of a particular film to best picture. Once the voting on the ten nominated films begins, if several films split the votes among the membership, the winner (by default) could be the one film, out of the nine, that garners only a few extra votes (Horn, Abramowitz, and Fritz. “Best Picture Change Triggers a Backlash.” Los Angeles Times 26 Jun 2009). Does this sound like the best way to decide the “greatest cinema achievement”? Honestly, Academy members struggle with the five film best picture nominees. How else can anyone explain the 1998 best picture awarded Shakespeare in Love over Steven Spielberg’s World War II epic, Saving Private Ryan.
Listen, I understand that the “piper must be paid”. By increasing the best picture nominees to ten films, the Academy anticipates that some of the popular films the general public actually sees might get a best picture nom thereby arousing the general public’s interest in the awards show. More interest in best picture hopefully means more television viewers for the show, which leads to happier advertisers. Great business, but what happens to the integrity of the Oscar for best picture? Think of the popular films, so far this year – Star Trek, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Up, or the upcoming Harry Potter film. Imagine the next award show, and what happens when the presenter for best picture opens the envelope and says, “And the Oscar for best picture goes to…” fill-in the blank with whatever popular film, the result is the same. At that moment popularity supersedes achievement and the argument of the Oscars as marketing tool finally gets resolved. If there is any further doubt, consider this last point. The chairman of the review panel, that recommended this rule change was, Tom Sherak, a veteran Hollywood marketing executive (Boucher, Abramowitz, and Eller. “Oscar’s Big Plot Twist: 10 Best-Pic, not 5.” Los Angeles Times 25 Jun 2009).
In 1927 Louis B. Mayer (the founder of MGM studios) gathered the biggest names, in the motion picture industry of the time, to establish an organization to “benefit the entire film industry”. Until now the Academy’s mission was to “reward the previous year’s greatest cinema achievements as determined by some of the world’s most accomplished motion picture artists and professionals.” (This history available directly from the Academy's website) Notice “film industry” and “motion picture artist and professional”; the general public has no place at this table. By making this change for business and popularity’s sake, the Academy stands to trivialize one of its highest honors along with tarnishing its history. Bag’em and tag’em – fade to black – with this decision the Oscars are truly dead.