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Back to just five best picture slots at the Oscars? Bad idea, academy

This year, every movie nominated for best picture won an Oscar

Every movie nominated for best picture this year won an Oscar.

That makes the rumblings that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences might want to contract the best picture category back to five nominees a bit odd. If voters thought enough of each of this year's eight nominated movies to give them all something — the first time that had happened since the academy's board of governors fattened the field six years ago — isn't that a sign the system is working?

The board — 51 members, including three representatives from each of the academy's 17 branches — will meet Tuesday night to review this year's show and air whatever grievances may have accumulated over the last few months. The Hollywood Reporter declared that a "significant fraction" of the academy wanted to return the best picture category to five nominees, the structure that was in place from 1944 to 2008.

Every year, it seems some portion of the academy — not to mention the media — bemoans the current state of affairs at the Oscars. The governors' postmortem on the 2013 Seth MacFarlane "I Saw Your Boobs" telecast was scathing (picture Comic Book Guy from "The Simpsons" griping "Worst. Show. Ever" in an echo chamber) — but that was about the show, not the system. And there is indeed the feeling among a few governors I spoke with that the voting structure now in place, which allows for a variable slate of five to 10 best picture nominees — is confusing to both the public and academy members .

"If you put it back to five, you can pick the winner in a popular vote," says a longtime board member, who asked for anonymity because the academy frowns on its members discussing business publicly. "That's something people understand. And it's easier to remember the movies nominated."

"I think the prestige value is ultimately stronger with a slate of five," another governor added.

On one level, that's inarguable. It's more impressive to be one of five. But if the Oscars are about shining a public spotlight on the best movies Hollywood produces in a given year, then it might be to the academy's advantage to remain a bit more generous with its affection.

Think about this year's best picture field. If there had been five nominees, it's safe to assume that the movies receiving the most nominations across the board — "Birdman," "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and "The Imitation Game" — would have made the cut. "Boyhood" probably would have too, because its director, Richard Linklater, was nominated.

The fifth and final movie would probably have been either "American Sniper" or "Whiplash," though it could well have been "The Theory of Everything," a well-crafted biopic that scored five nods and had a broad appeal among older, more traditional academy members.

So what likely would have been left out? "Selma," for starters. Remember the backlash against the academy when the film received only two nominations? Think about the roar of outrage had it been nominated only for original song. Or think about a best picture slate that didn't include "American Sniper." The Oscars are somewhat ratings-proof, but a percentage of people do watch based on the movies and performances nominated. And a best picture slate of "Birdman," "Boyhood," "Budapest," "The Imitation Game" and "Whiplash" wouldn't have exactly provided a wealth of familiar options.

This idea that less is somehow more runs counter to what the film academy's counterparts on the television side did recently with the Emmys, expanding the categories for drama and comedy series to seven nominees from six. Nobody has complained, because there is so much quality work being done on television these days that even a list containing seven programs will leave out many worthy series. ("The Americans" has to get in this year, right? Right?) The TV academy's message: We are living in a small-screen Shangri-La, people! Gaze with wonder and amazement upon our medium!

Does the film academy really want to fold its tent and say, "Sorry. Five's all we got"? Granted, studios are attempting fewer prestige, non-Spandex-centric projects than ever. And yet ambitious American movies continue to be made, and when they work, these films should be celebrated. Would academy members feel better about the best picture category if "Selma" had not been nominated? Judging from the standing ovation John Legend and Common received at the Oscars telecast after their performance of "Glory" from that movie, I don't think so.

An expanded best picture field has allowed the academy to honor a number of films — "The Tree of Life," "A Serious Man," "Zero Dark Thirty," "Amour," "Her," "The Wolf of Wall Street," to name six that might not have been among a field of five in recent years — that represent bold, original filmmaking, excellence that will be remembered fondly down the road. Nobody is lamenting that "The Wizard of Oz" received a best picture nomination for 1939, back in the era when the category numbered 10.

Many of the governors I spoke with seemed fine with the current system, though one cautioned that it might take just a couple of passionate voices to sway the indifferent to make another change. Should the academy go back to five, one thing's certain: That's it. No more changes. After doubling the category from five to 10 in 2009 and then refining the balloting two years later to allow for a minimum of five but a maximum of 10, any further tinkering beyond the return to five would make the academy look at best indecisive and at worst ridiculous.

"We should be open to change, sure, but we shouldn't be putting our fingers to the wind every two years," one governor complained. "Unless someone has a good argument for going back to five, I can't see a reason to change yet again."

I'm still waiting to hear that argument myself.

Twitter: @GlennWhipp

Whipp writes the Gold Standard column for the Envelope.

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