The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced that the Academy Awards ceremony in 2010, honoring the films of 2009, will feature 10 nominees in the best picture category instead of five. In the 1930s and 1940s, the best picture race often included 8-12 films; the 1939 field, which included Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, is rightly remembered as one of the most impressive collections of best picture nominees in history. The 1943 awards — which honored Casablanca as best picture — were the last ones to feature 10 contestants for the top award. The next year, the field dropped to five.
Making the announcement, Academy president Sid Ganis said, “After more than six decades, the Academy is returning to some of its earlier roots, when a wider field competed for the top award of the year. … The final outcome, of course, will be the same — one best picture winner — but the race to the finish line will feature 10, not just five, great movies from 2009.” Ganis is technically right about the Academy’s roots, but it’s impossible to see this shift as anything other than a desperate grab for ratings and commercial appeal.
Ratings for the Oscar broadcast have been trending downward for years, and typically spike when a commercial hit is up for best picture. The 2003 telecast, which gave the top award to Chicago, drew 33 million viewers and a 20.58 rating; the next year, when The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King swept the awards, earned 43.6 million viewers and a 26.68 rating. The Oscars, ostensibly, are about recognizing quality films, but the broadcast is about grabbing eyeballs, and the Academy can double its chances of roping in viewers by expanding the best picture race.
Plus, let’s not forget that while a great film can win best picture, the best picture isn’t always a great film (e.g. Dances With Wolves, A Beautiful Mind, and that Paul Haggis movie whose name I can never remember). The wider field all but guarantees that more commercially viable films will be in the running in hopes of drawing more viewers to the broadcast, but will those films be worthwhile nominees? Here’s hoping. For every The Dark Knight, there’s a Titanic.