Best picture change triggers a backlash

Let the backlash begin.

Like some of the most polarizing best picture winners -- “Shakespeare in Love,” “Crash,” “No Country for Old Men” -- the rules change made Wednesday to the Academy Awards’ top category is splitting Oscar voters. The growing chorus of dissenters says the new inclusion of 10 best picture nominees will diminish the award’s value, encourage bloc voting for obscure titles and possibly yield a best picture that wins with less than 11% of the total votes cast.

“I think it undermines the integrity of the Academy Awards,” said marketing consultant Dennis Rice, a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ public relations branch. “I have trouble most years finding five movies to nominate.”

Said Robert Solo, an academy member for more than 35 years and the producer of 1978’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”: “It just eviscerates the whole value of the award. They did this because they’re not getting the television ratings. Is this what the academy is about? They’re worried the program would be canceled, but that’s not why the academy was created. This is merchandising. This is not award giving.”


The organization said Wednesday that it was doubling the number of best picture nominees from five to 10, starting with next year’s awards (the ceremony is scheduled for March 7). Ratings for the annual Oscar broadcast have been plummeting, and even though this year’s broadcast attracted more viewers -- 36.3 million -- than recent shows, the academy has been looking for ways to give the ceremony a more populist appeal.

“There will still only be one winner, but we have to change with the times,” said producer Hawk Koch, an academy vice president and member of its board of governors, who strongly supports the rule change. “We are not only an organization of small independent films.”

Koch did say, however, that because there will be 10 finalists for the top trophy, the academy will discuss at its next board meeting whether to amend its voting procedures. The film with the most votes -- no matter how small the total -- takes the statuette. All of the academy’s roughly 5,800 members are eligible to vote for the nominees and winner.

“We want to make sure 11% doesn’t get best picture,” said Koch, a producer of “Untraceable.”

The academy is expected to make another announcement Monday aimed at streamlining the show. Koch and other board members declined to say what it would be.

In increasing the number of best picture finalists, the awards group hopes it will be able to recognize box-office blockbusters that typically do not make the shortlist for Hollywood’s highest honor.

But several academy members, some of whom said they were blindsided by the announcement, and Oscar campaign strategists said it wasn’t clear whether the additional best picture spots would automatically go to box-office hits such as “Star Trek” and “Up” or to substantially less popular (but critically acclaimed) art movies.

Under the academy’s voting rules, only the accountants know the tabulations, so no one involved in the rules change knows how close “Doubt,” “The Wrestler,” “The Dark Knight” and “Iron Man” came to being nominated last year.

Judd Bernard, an academy member and producer of “The Marseille Contract,” said he was surprised by Wednesday’s news and felt that the rank and file should have been asked about the rules change before it was announced. He was concerned that by trying to include blockbuster titles (the Oscar show with the all-time highest ratings honored “Titanic”), the academy would overvalue box-office returns.

“I do hope that this does not mean that just because a picture makes nine zillion dollars, it will automatically be an academy picture,” Bernard said. “Next year’s winner will be ‘Transformers.’ A picture makes a lot of money, but it doesn’t mean it’s a great movie. If excellence in achievement just meant money, then Bernie Madoff would get an Academy Award.”

The change in rules will almost certainly boost the income of Oscar consultants, who can charge $15,000 a month for coordinating a movie’s awards campaign and receive bonuses of as much as $20,000 for a nomination in a top category and another $20,000 for a win.

Several consultants, who declined to be identified, said they were concerned that small but cohesive blocs of Oscar voters -- there are about 400 academy members in Britain, who could band together, for example -- might be able to push a little movie into the big category.

Under the system used by the academy to select nominees (which is a different from the procedure to pick winners), the voting members will list their top 10 selections in order of preference.

Douglas Amy, a professor of politics at Mount Holyoke College who is an expert on voting systems, said that a movie can now become a nominee if as few as 525 people list it among their top selections (assuming that most members vote).

When there were five nominees, the minimum requirement was about 930, Amy said.

“The good part about this is it means a wider variety of movies that a significant minority like should be chosen,” he said. With an extra five slots available, in other words, films that provoke strongly divergent opinions but have a passionate voting bloc have a better chance to land a nomination.

Movies that do not receive any first-place votes are eliminated from consideration for best picture. Therefore, it is conceivable that films that are popular with many voters but are nobody’s favorite won’t get nominations.

David Foster, a veteran producer (“The Mask of Zorro,” “The River Wild”) and academy member, said he welcomed the changes.

“Clearly something was wrong the last bunch of years. If something is wrong with something, you have to figure out a way to correct it,” Foster said.

“I think it’s good we expand. Some of the old rules are too old. This is the 21st century, for God’s sake.”