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Dear Academy: It's Time to Narrow the Best Picture Field Back Down to 5

By Rebecca Pahle | Think Pieces | January 20, 2015 |

By Rebecca Pahle | Think Pieces | January 20, 2015 |

“I really don’t give a shit about the Oscars at all!” I tell myself as I write my third Oscar-related post in a little over a week.

But this post is important, Academy. I have figured out a way to fix the Oscars. Aside from “let the Muppets host it” and “let Prince present every award” and “ban Harvey Weinstein.”

In 2009, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences made the decision to increase the Best Picture field from five to a potential ten nominees. It was surprising, but not unprecedented—in 1934 and 1935 there were 12 Best Picture nominees, and from 1935 to 1943 there were 10. The first Academy Awards even had two Best Picture categories, for “Production” (think bigger, more technically impressive, “Hollywood”-type movies—like 1999 Best Picture winner Titanic) and “Unique and Artistic Production” (for more innovative, story-focused work—like Titanic’s fellow nominee Good Will Hunting), and they were both seen as equally prestigious.

A year later, the two categories were folded into one, and the identity of the “Oscar movie”—historical epics, biopics, serious but not so serious as to be considered a downer, containing a positive message but not one so positive as to threaten its all-important gravitas—began to take shape. AMPAS could usually be counted upon to throw some surprises into the ring (for example, The Full Monty was nominated alongside Titanic and Good Will Hunting), but for the most part, Oscar films were “Oscar-y,” and many studios and filmmakers catered to that. Shit got stagnant.

The decision behind increasing the Best Picture pool to anywhere from five to ten (the official rules state that “no picture shall be nominated that receives less than five percent of the total votes cast,” which explains the wiggle room) came about because the Academy acknowledged this stagnation and decided to take steps to correct it by recognizing films that fell outside of the normal Oscar wheelhouse. Some saw the Machiavellian machinations of studios in the decision—angry that the Academy only honored “art house-y, hoity toity niche films,” they lobbied for the expansion so more mainstream fare could squeak in, bestowing films like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (left out of the Best Picture field in its last five-movie year) with potentially lucrative awards-season bragging rights in addition to huge box office. For others, it wasn’t so much the studios trying to get money as the Academy making a last grab for its ever-receding relevance.

The behind-the-scenes politics doesn’t matter so much as that this happened, and it happened so that the Academy could, in the words of former executive director Bruce Davis, “provide a better indication of the whole range of a year’s best work.” No one really thought that District 9 (Best Picture nominee 2010) or Toy Story 3 (2011) would win, but it was cool that a sci-fi actioner and an animated kid’s movie—both of which were among the greatest films of their respective years, both of which never would have had a chance in hell at being nominated if there had been only five slots—had been recognized by the Academy.

Fast forward to the 2015 Oscars. Let’s take a look at the Best Picture nominee slate: We have four biopics, three of which are about the Academy’s favorite-ever thing, White Dudes. The directors of the nominated films have 17 previous nominations between them (for directing, producing, and screenwriting). The only nominee that I can’t see slipping into some hypothetical five-nominee year is Whiplash—everything else is pretty run-of-the-mill Oscar-y, in terms of content (The Theory of Everything) and/or talent (this is Wes Anderson’s fourth Oscar-nominated film, if his first to get a Best Picture nod). Last year, too, the smaller films that probably wouldn’t have been nominated pre-2010 featured such AMPAS-fucking-love-them talents at Judi Dench (Philomela) and Alexander Payne (Nebraska).

This isn’t to say that being a “run-of-the-mill-Oscar-film” is necessarily a bad thing. Being about a white guy struggling doesn’t make The Imitation Game a bad movie* (as Alexandra DiPalma at Fusion points out, it helps highlight Hollywood’s diversity problem). But a field crowded with The Imitation Games and Boyhoods does kind of shoot the “we’re going to nominate non-Oscar-y films!” thing in the eye.

Where’s the District 9? Where’s the Up? Where’s Nightcrawler? The Babadook? The Lego Movie? Snowpiercer?

The Oscars can acknowledge that they’re backsliding into the same-old-same-old and make an effort to really shine a light on “the whole range of a year’s best work,” or they can admit this is a failed experiment and go back to five films. They can’t keep going the way they are. We’re going to reach peak biopic one day, and it won’t be pretty. The year AMPAS nominates a biopic about a white guy famous for making a biopic is the year I move to Mars.

*Being a bad movie makes The Imitation Game a bad movie.

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