The great experiment in “widening the playing field” — expanding the number of nominees to 10 this year — turned out to be a complete dud. It dragged down the three-plus-hour telecast. At times, when clips of the nominated films were introduced, it felt like a surreal intrusion on the plain hard truths of Oscars.
For instance, I liked District 9, a visceral science-fiction film/political parable about extraterrestrials confined by force to a South African slum. But the clip shown of monsters kicking earthling butt (and vice versa) made it clear this isn't the kind of film the Oscars are about. Not unless James Cameron directed it, and there was already one of his films in the running. It was embarrassing to watch everyone in attendance pretend to take the nomination seriously.
By the same token, the introduction of hopeless Best Picture nominee Up came after it had already won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Everyone knew that was as good as it was going to get for the Pixar film. The pretension of it being a bona fide Best Picture nominee was anticlimactic. And boring.
For the record, the 10 nominees were: winner The Hurt Locker, Avatar, Up in the Air, Precious: Based on a the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, Inglourious Basterds, The Blind Side, An Education, Up, District 9 and A Serious Man.
But anyone interested enough in the Oscars to get as far as Sunday knew there were only five legitimate nominees — the Final Five, the ones that had also been nominated for Best Director — the first five in the paragraph above. Those two categories correlate so highly that expanding the nominees in one but not the other was doomed to be perceived as insincere. And the Academy’s director members, who nominate the Best Director candidates, would never have stood for their very important award to be watered down with 10 nominees.
Really, the Academy was fighting the Information Age in pretending it could sell the American public on the 10-nominee Best Picture category.
In this era of cable television and the Internet, the Oscars have been thoroughly demystified. We're all insiders. Nobody views them as High Artistic Pronouncements anymore.
Instead they're the result of a political-like campaigning process that we can watch evolve and develop. They are more like Congress than the Supreme Court.
Cable networks show important precursors like the Screen Actors Guild awards; the Internet lets us know on an hourly basis which nominees are gaining or losing traction. It’s hard enough for the Academy to maintain public interest in five serious nominees these days, so well informed is the public on the frontrunners by the time Oscar night comes around.
So rather than increasing Oscar-night excitement, having to sit through a telecast that treats films like An Education or A Serious Man as legitimate Best Picture nominees decreases it. Everyone knows these are films that, for whatever reason, weren’t able to make the real cut.
So why did the Academy do this? I like the term that Los Angeles Times television critic Mary McNamara used in criticizing the telecast: a “crisis in confidence.” Broadcast television has been fretting about the loss of a mass audience in this age of new media sources. In particular, it’s worried young people don’t have the reverence that Boomers had for the big awards shows — they’d rather text message or whatever.
Not helping things is that Academy voters have become more sophisticated in their tastes in nominated films, choosing auteurist indie productions with dark, troubling themes that aren’t really meant to be $100 million-plus blockbusters. The 2008 telecast, when the Best Picture competition primarily was between two such dark films, No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, drew an all-time low of 32 million viewers, according to Variety. (The 1998 one, riding high on Cameron’s Titanic, drew 55 million.)
The idea of 10 Best Picture nominees, then, was a way to get some of the better popcorn movies — including an animated film and a feel-good populist hit or two — into the running. I’m sure the Academy also wished films like Star Trek or The Hangover would get in there. (It can’t control the actual nominations, which are voted on by its membership.)
The greatest irony, ultimately, is the Academy didn’t even need to embarrass itself. The balance issue took care of itself in the Top Five this year.
Cameron’s Avatar, his first feature since Titanic, became the biggest film of all time, revitalizing the 3-D process. Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds was also a sizeable hit, a fantastical war movie with enough violence to satisfy action fans as well as art-house-level dialogue. The Final Five’s three other titles all had some degree of contemporary relevancy both on and off screen — winner The Hurt Locker, also a pretty riveting war film, had a female director, Kathryn Bigalow, aiming to become the first woman ever to direct a Best Picture.
Early indications are the Oscars attracted an audience of 41 million, according to Reuters the biggest audience in five years. It’s safe to say the balance and appeal of the real nominees were the reason. People watched despite the time taken up with the Bogus Five.