In January, all of Hollywood wondered exactly how close “The Dark Knight” came to earning an Oscar nomination for best picture. Now we know the answer: It missed by 12 months.
If the “The Dark Knight” had been released this summer instead of last, it would have been part of the new Academy Awards era that began Wednesday with the out-of-the-blue announcement that the best picture category at the Oscars will double in size to 10 films.
The uncharacteristically bold change caught Hollywood studios off guard and reset all the expectations for Hollywood’s biggest prize, which now would seem to have room on its short list for well-regarded popcorn films such as this summer’s “Up” and “Star Trek.”
That would be a major change for a traditionally staid award gala that is far more comfortable with art-house fare and lavish period pieces than summer blockbusters, even the well-reviewed ones. The bigger-tent approach in the marquee category is a return to form of the academy’s early years, which commonly saw 10 to 12 nominees in the 1930s and ‘40s. The change is a direct result of a two-year, in-house search for ways to broaden the appeal of the show, and with good reason -- viewership is sagging, most dramatically among young people who know they won’t hear the names of films they love when the envelopes are opened.
“Last year there were more movies that I thought might have fit in the nominations,” Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Sid Ganis said Wednesday, acknowledging that hits such as “Iron Man,” “The Dark Knight” and “Tropic Thunder” resonated far more with moviegoers than with academy voters.
The 2008 award show marked the lowest ratings ever for an Oscar telecast. That was a wake-up call for members of the academy and network partner ABC, which has broadcast the show since the Ford administration. Commercials sold during the show -- and priced based on ratings -- are big business for ABC and, more than that, the primary lifeblood for the academy’s coffers.
The organization took steps to shake up the broadcast this year, and after it aired show producers Bill Condon and Larry Mark joined a review to look at ways to improve the show. It wasn’t an entirely new discussion: There had been talk through the years of adding a best comedy category. But this time the suggestion that stuck was the pitch by the two producers that the best picture category be expanded to 10 films. Ganis said the final call was not made until Tuesday night.
It’s clear that Ganis and ABC would love a Kentucky Derby-style crush of suspense at the ABC broadcast of the 82nd Academy Awards next March, but Wednesday’s news had many in the industry privately outraged at the prospect of a watered-down honor. At least one top Oscar strategist pointed out that with a 10-nominee field, a far smaller percentage of votes will be required to claim the film industry’s most coveted prize.
Meanwhile, executives at major studios groaned at the prospect of even more award-season jockeying and advertising campaigns.
“The general amount of Oscar spending has effectively doubled,” said an exasperated Mike Vollman, marketing chief at MGM/UA. “Thank you very much!”
The cash-strapped studios have been going in the other direction, pulling back on Oscar campaign spending, especially considering the tepid payoff at the box office even with an Oscar nod.
Jeff Blake, chairman of worldwide marketing and distribution at Sony Pictures’ Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group, said he would resist any additional spending on the “for your consideration” ads that run in the Hollywood trades and newspapers such as this one.
“Just because they’ve doubled the number of nominations,” Blake said, “that doesn’t mean that as a marketing department we should figure out a way to double the amount of money we spend in hopes of getting one.”
Not everyone was focused on the bottom line. Many around Hollywood were looking for the upside, especially the makers of big-budget summer films and special-effects fare who have been frustrated that they can win over ticket buyers and, increasingly, movie critics but not frosty academy voters.
Laura Ziskin, two-time Oscar telecast producer as well as a producer of Sony’s “Spider-Man” franchise, which has pulled in more than $2 billion worldwide, was elated to hear that box-office heroes might have better trophy luck.
“I think it’s fantastic,” Ziskin said. “What could be bad? From a horse-race standpoint, it makes it more exciting. In some years, it’s hard to think of five movies to nominate, but that’s just a comment on the state of the business. The tricky part about the Oscars is how do you keep what’s great about it? How do you keep what’s traditional about it and also make it fresh? I have a better chance of getting nominated. It gives you a more interesting mix. What’s wrong with popcorn movies if they’re good?”
Samuel L. Jackson, one of the busiest actors in the summer-movie sector, said it would have been better to set up a separate category for action films or top-grossing releases. Under this new system, he doubts fanboy fare would ever get more than a nomination. “They don’t give Oscars to movies people want to see. Who the hell wants to see ‘The Reader’?”
He may have a point. There’s no guarantee that the academy will use these five extra slots on mainstream hits as opposed to adding in more of the adult dramas it so often embraces.
“I think it’s going to help the musicals and comedies and the genre films, but I don’t think this means they will be winning,” agreed Jon Favreau, director of “Iron Man” and “Elf.” “I think this means more people are in on the party, but I think you will still see [the same types of] films sweep. The nominee list is going to look like an Iraqi presidential ballot with all the names. I also think it could hurt small films that have won in the past, like ‘Crash’ and ‘Slumdog Millionaire,’ which may suffer when there’s more choices.”
The news from the academy media conference in Beverly Hills was a bit of a thunderbolt rare in a town where secrets circulate as fast as the latest red-hot script.
“We were completely surprised and I can tell you that no one here pressured the academy to do this,” said Jasmine Madatian, senior vice president of publicity at the Walt Disney Studios. “It’s going to force everybody to take another look at it . . . you can’t ignore this kind of change.”
Ganis proudly described the announcement “as a bombshell” and said that it was kept under wraps because the board was “really into it happening in a way that would make an impact.” He said a major advocate of the change was Tom Sherak, a veteran marketing executive and the chairman of the review panel, while Condon was a key voice for the category expansion.
The Awards Review Committee recommended the idea to the full academy board Tuesday night, which voted almost unanimously to expand the category.
Across Hollywood, industry insiders were calculating who the winners might be under the new system. Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, said independent films clearly stood to gain.
“It’s great for the independent community, there are more chances to win,” Bernard said. “Certainly there are probably 10 movies every year that could have easily been chosen, so it’s interesting to put them all into the mix. The big question: How are you going to get all the members to watch the 45 DVDs that show up at their house on Christmas Day?”
Animated films may also draw more prestige. Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” (1991) is the only animated feature ever nominated for best picture. Now Disney/Pixar’s “Up” looks like an early lock with the double-digit roster of nominees.
Times staff writers Juliette Funes and Susan King contributed to this report.