Do the New Oscar Rules Really Mean More Diverse Movies Will Be Nominated?

October 12, 2009  |  11:00am
When the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced last summer that it planned a radical change in the best-picture category (10 films will now vie for the prize under a new vote-counting system), arguments typically ran down two paths.

One was obvious: What are they thinking? Since the move could so easily be seen as a cynical bid for better ratings, it seemed to dilute the brand and add fodder to perennial critics who lamented the show’s influence. But another, more benign way to view the change is as a bold move by the notoriously conservative academy to renew interest in an institution that had been losing it steadily over the years.

For better or worse, the rules are now set, and in the past few weeks, the annual guessing game has reverted back to its old self with amusing speed. The season has arrived. Now the only question is what films will make the cut—or, more specifically, what kind of films. 

Announcing the decision last summer, Academy President Sid Ganis alluded to what the expanded field could mean for next year’s nominees. He said the new best-picture nominees would likely be “more interesting and less cloistered,” adding that it may allow foreign films and documentaries into the fold. “Maybe even a comedy,” he quipped.

As Paste’s annual Oscar breakdown and dozens of others demonstrate every year, there is a yearning for that kind of diversity among the final picks. It’s just not clear if there is any cause for optimism.

Consider last year’s best-picture nominees. When The Reader became a surprise nominee rather than The Dark Knight, crowd wisdom had Knight being in slot No. 6. But what’s to say there weren’t five more of The Reader behind that curtain? Changeling, DoubtRevolutionary Road or any other Oscar-ready movie could have just as easily been there. Because the records of Academy Awards voting are kept confidential forever, it's impossible to tell for sure.

Cut to this year, where about the closest thing we have to a best-picture contender is the war thriller The Hurt Locker. Or at least that’s what we would have said this time last year, had there been only five nominees. Now there are 10, everyone points out expectantly. Now Pixar will finally be nominated, with Up. Or maybe District 9, the scrappy sci-fi blast from the summer. Harry Potter? Star Trek? Even the major studios think they've improved their chances.

Is it possible everyone's headed for a crushing disappointment? It’s all speculation at this point, of course, but the only discernible recent trend in the best-picture category has been to nominate the films that studios produce precisely for the best-picture category. These aren’t smashes like The Dark Knight or truly independent movies like Frozen River, they’re mid-budget, little-seen “specialty” movies like The Reader, whose values and aesthetics are defined by the graying academy’s tastes. 

For now, for all the chatter the academy has successfully stirred up with the new rules, there is no reason to believe this year will be any different, no matter how many nominees there are. For Oscarphiles, the only thing that could ruin the anything-goes excitement of this year's contest is the very real possibility that it will be an even bigger, more grating reinforcement of the status quo.

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