THE ACADEMY AWARD FOR BEST PICTURE: A SMALLER CIRCLE OR A BIGGER TENT?

Mark Harris, a magnificent awards season writer over at Grantland, raised a few hackles earlier this week by suggesting that the Academy Awards’ expanded Best Picture field, now five years old, has had the perverse effect of limiting Oscar voters’ imaginations and decimating the field of competition.  As his argument goes, voters now favor Best Picture frontrunners heavily across the board: as evidence, the number of films nominated this year in the “Top Eight” categories (Picture, Director, the four Acting awards, and the two Writing awards) has dwindled to only 12, the lowest in decades.  Apart from the nine Best Picture nominees, only Blue Jasmine, August: Osage County, and Before Midnight managed any nominations in the Big Eight categories.

I’ll go into his argument in greater detail below, but it boils down to this: constricting the number of nominated films stifles the celebration of new or alternative talent that is needed to renew the creative core of the film industry.  I’ve written before on the implications of a shrinking creative pool within Oscar circles, and while I agree that this would be a troubling prospect, I think that Harris is crying wolf, basing his conclusions on some faulty data and playing into a few entrenched arguments against the expanded Best Picture field.  I hate to get a little Nate Silver on him, but it’s coming.

Before I go on, though, I have to admit a bit of personal bias.  Every year I rush to see as many new releases on the big screen as I can, and it’s become a point of pride come January & February to have watched every Oscar-nominated film in such a fashion.  At the nominations announcement last week, in addition to my joy at seeing my preferred frontrunners (Her, 12 Years a Slave) handsomely rewarded and some of my favorite underdogs (The Wind Rises, The Grandmaster) nab a few citations, I was also relieved to see that I only had six movies still to see: two Animated Features, three Documentary Features, and the Best Song nominee that nobody has ever seen.  Given that some years have yielded over 50 nominated feature films, it’s nice to catch a break with a lean 42.

Understandably, though, not everybody interprets 42 as a good number.  Harris is a fantastic writer on film and perhaps the best to have ever tackled the Academy Awards as a subject: his book Pictures at a Revolution, chronicling the momentous 1967 Best Picture race, is one of the best snapshots of Hollywood and American film culture ever written, and his essays over at Grantland cover the current awards season with a deep appreciation not only for the Academy Awards’ history, but also their ostensible mission: to promote excellence in filmmaking.  To this end, he’s ever vigilant for emerging trends that might affect that mission for better or worse.  I agree that the notion of a permanently tightening Oscar race, squeezing out the offbeat nominees, is troubling.  As he says in his essay, many of the Oscars’ finest moments in past decades have come from films that managed only a lone nomination among the Top Eight:

The greater the number of films that are embraced, the clearer it becomes that voters have done their homework. And those “outlier” nominations tend to withstand history’s verdict rather impressively: David Lynch for Blue Velvet. The scripts of Trainspotting and Election. A teenage Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson. Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream. Christopher Nolan himself, for his Memento screenplay. For movies, but also for the reputation of the Oscars, one major nomination truly is better than nothing.

Though I’m glad to have a light year in terms of catch-up, I concur that this year has an anomalously low crop of nominated films, particularly in the marquee races.  In a year when standout films (or at least films with standout elements) like Short Term 12, Mud, Fruitvale Station, Rush, The Spectacular Now, and Enough Said were shut out entirely, there’s plenty to lament.

However, one year is just about as far as this trend goes.  Harris asserts that 2013 is the latest result in an apparently downward slide in the five years since Best Picture was expanded from its decades-old limit of 5 nominees.  This isn’t quite the case.  Before this year, the number of films nominated in the Big 8 categories are as follows:

2013:  9 BP nominees          12 films nominated in the Top 8 categories

2012:  9 BP nominees          14 films nominated in the Top 8 categories

2011:  9 BP nominees          21 films nominated in the Top 8 categories

2010:  10 BP nominees        16 films nominated in the Top 8 categories

2009:  10 BP nominees        18 films nominated in the Top 8 categories

Taking out this year, we’re left with a low of 14 films in 2012 and a high of 21 films the year before, in 2011.  Now look at the decade before the switch:

2008:  5 BP nominees          19 films nominated in the Top 8 categories

2007:  5 BP nominees          20 films nominated in the Top 8 categories

2006:  5 BP nominees          19 films nominated in the Top 8 categories

2005:  5 BP nominees          18 films nominated in the Top 8 categories

2004:  5 BP nominees          15 films nominated in the Top 8 categories

2003:  5 BP nominees          22 films nominated in the Top 8 categories

2002:  5 BP nominees          17 films nominated in the Top 8 categories

2001:  5 BP nominees          19 films nominated in the Top 8 categories

2000:  5 BP nominees          16 films nominated in the Top 8 categories

1999:  5 BP nominees          19 films nominated in the Top 8 categories

The range is almost exactly the same, between 15 (2004) and 22 (2003) films divvying up the 40 available slots.  You can continue this trend back for the three decades since 1981, the last time we had an outlier like this year:

The range of nominated films in the Top 8 and Top 6 categories (both metrics that Harris uses) stayed extremely consistent for the thirty years bookended by 1982 and 2013.  The trend has dipped very slightly in the last two years, but hardly beyond the pale.  Even this year could have turned out a little differently; as Harris acknowledges, if a few of the (very competitive) races for that fifth slot had tilted toward the very much in contention Daniel Brühl (Rush), Oprah Winfrey (LD’s The Butler), Robert Redford (All Is Lost), or the Coen Brothers (Inside Llewyn Davis), then it would have been a very normal year.  While it’s entirely possible that this year will inaugurate a new era of shrunken Oscar fields, I’m more inclined to look at it as a fluke: a year in which all of the close races happened to tip ever-so-slightly toward of the BP nominees.  It happened in 1981, when an astonishingly small group of 9 films completely colonized all four acting categories and only Raiders of the Lost Ark’s, Pennies from Heaven, and Prince of the City cracked the other four to yield 12 films in the Top 8.  It was bound to happen again.

What is the deal with the expanded Best Picture field, then?  This change has been an issue to conjure with among Oscar obsessives ever since the Academy’s Board of Governors voted it into effect in June of 2009.  Since then, those in favor of the expansion (myself included) have argued that it better reflects the year in film, allows passionate picks to find a place alongside the consensus choices, and changes the perception of what a “Best Picture movie” can be.  Those opposed have contended that it cheapens the honor of being nominated, that it panders to blockbuster films, that there aren’t enough good films each year to justify the change, that it’s arbitrary and confusing (especially since the switch in 2011 to a variable number of nominees), or that it overwhelms moviegoers eager to see all of the nominees.  Harris’ argument takes these last points on both sides, saying that instead of increasing the number of films under consideration, it has the effect of decreasing the movies in serious contention.  This stifles the kind of independent thinking that, he notes, led to a 1988 Best Supporting Actor field devoid of overlap with the Best Picture slate, for example (he omits the fact that 1988 was also the only year in which all five Best Supporting Actress nominees came from Best Picture-nominated films).

In the meantime, though, the last five years have been laden with intriguing left-field nominations.  Whether you agree with the choices or not, the rogue nominations for Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine (Actress), Demian Bichir in A Better Life (Actor), Jacki Weaver in Animal Kingdom (Supporting Actress), Moonrise Kingdom (Original Screenplay) and In the Loop (Adapted Screenplay) have shown that the Actors and Writers Branches are quite capable of pressing against the tide.  The one category that’s yet to shock us with a lone nomination is Best Director, though that’s historically an exceedingly rare phenomenon, and last year’s nominations for Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild) and Michael Haneke (Amour) bucked expectations more dramatically than any category has in years.

Indeed, it’s those nominations for Zeitlin and Haneke that to me indicate the real value of the expanded Best Picture field.  It does not conjure Oscar contenders where none were before; instead, it extends a bonus honor to the films being heralded by the passionate few.  While Harris claims that the expanded field produces a trickle-down effect into the other categories, I would argue the reverse: that passionate support in individual branches builds ground-up support toward a Best Picture nomination.  Whether for actor-driven movies like 127 Hours or The Blind Side, auteur-driven writer/director favorites like The Tree of Life and A Serious Man, technological marvels like District 9 and Inception, the expanded Best Picture field has included niche champions alongside the most mainstream picks.  Indeed, the hope in voters’ minds that fringier films like these can make it into the Best Picture circle has likely helped to pull them into serious contention.

I agree with Harris that many of the Academy’s proudest calls, the ones that will look the best after a few decades, will follow in the tradition of Brazil, The Wild Bunch, Singin’ in the Rain, North by Northwest by earning just one or two nominations apiece. I certainly hope that Before Midnight (Adapted Screenplay), Richard Linklater’s epic collaboration with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, as well as the technically masterful and intensely humanist dramas All Is Lost (Sound Editing) and Inside Llewyn Davis (Cinematography, Sound Mixing) will join that club, even if I would have loved to see them score above-the-line nominations as well.  It’s been the same story for the entire history of the Academy, with a handful of films on the margins rising to greatness alongside a precious few Oscar juggernauts, to say nothing of the films, from King Kong to In the Mood for Love, that were bypassed entirely.

I agree with Mark Harris that she Academy should continue to do its homework and bring in dynamic talents like Kristen Wiig, J.C. Chandor, and and Naomi Watts, regardless of their films’ perceived coattails.  We’ll never know definitively what effect the expanded Best Picture field has had on the awards, but if it can cast a wider net, bestowing a laurel on enduring masterpieces in the making (in my opinion, Up and Zero Dark Thirty would be a great place to start), that’s all the better for the future of the Academy.

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Clifford James Galiher received his B.A. in Film and Television Production and M.A. in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA, and he is currently pursuing a doctorate in Critical Studies at USC. His research focuses on the history of pre-digital visual effects, and his other interests include animation, narrative studies, and the awards industry and film canons.  He hopes to one day become independently wealthy so that he can pursue his dream of ushering full-time.

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