FTA: COMPLETE DISSECTION: Should the Academy Return to Five Best Picture Nominees

After another year of dismal ratings, should the Academy consider altering (again) its marquee category?

This column is From The Arhive. It was originally published on hallbrothersfilm.com on April 10, 2015.

This year’s Oscars telecast is long over, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is now beginning the off-season tradition of picking apart their own show, asking themselves what worked and whatever you can call Neil Patrick Harris’ magic trick bit. For them it is probably a complicated, tedious process. For all of us at home, it can seem so simple. “Make it shorter!” “Get a better host!” “Nominate movies I like!” Industry pundits (and their editors) are always quick to write pieces that bullet-point these emotional overreactions. If you did not see a headline after this year’s show that read something like “Six Things The Academy Must Do To Fix The Oscars” then you simply were not living. Either that or you had something way better to do than scan the trades for Oscar Postmortems. Ugh, I suck.

To spice up this year’s Academy powwow, news has been swirling that the Academy is considering a return to a five-nominee Best Picture field instead of the five-to-ten format they have right now. Technically they’ve been “considering” this every year since they opened the category up to more nominees in 2009 as there is a small, but vocal, group within the organization that never got down with the idea of adding more films to be judged for their most prestigious award. The argument that leaps to the front of everyone’s mind is that, by expanding the category to include more films, the honor of receiving a nomination is lessened. Now anyone can be a Best Picture nominee! How droll! And while math would dictate that it is easier to get one slot out of ten than it is to get one out of five, the new nomination process makes it still quite difficult for a film to rise to the top. The Academy nominates through a preferential ballot system meaning that, in order to be a Best Picture nominee, at minimum 5% of the voters have to select your film as the #1 film of the year. With membership currently pegged at 6,124 members (and growing every year), if everyone in the academy votes, you have to get 306 people to say, “Hey, your film was DA BEST!”

I cannot get the four people in my apartment to agree on the best film of the year, so I cannot even imagine getting me and 305 of my closest friends to reach a consensus. Point being, it is still pretty hard to be a Best Picture nominee, even with the five-to-ten format. So if that is case, why would the Academy be considering a return to only five nominees? Perhaps more importantly, should they be? Join me now as I seek to answer these surely trivial and undoubtedly unimportant questions. We begin with taking a look at why the rule was changed in the first place, all the way back in sweet, sweet 2008.

When Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight opened on July 18, 2008, it was hailed as a genuine cinematic achievement. A true cop ’n’ gangster film wrapped in the cape of a superhero franchise. It set a new bar for its genre (that has yet to be reached) and it featured a blistering performance from the late Heath Ledger. On top of that, it was a massive hit! It was the #1 film at the box office that year and it still sits at a very high #4 on the all-time domestic box office chart. It is one of the few films of the new millennium that achieved the rare marriage of near-unanimous critical praise (94% on Rotten Tomatoes) and blockbuster financial success.

Now the Academy in 2008 was in bad shape. They were coming off their lowest viewed telecast of the Oscars since before they even started measuring viewership. Pundits were criticizing the organization for being out of touch with the average American moviegoer. With “small” films (and hardly box office juggernauts) like There Will Be Blood, Michael Clayton, and No Country for Old Men sweeping up most of the nominations, it was hard to argue with them. Soon, a sentiment began to grow around the industry, as well as with moviegoers, that the Academy should focus on nominating more popular films. By doing this, they could both re-position themselves as the authoritative voice of the people and hopefully boost their ratings back up to respectable numbers. All they needed was a film that was undeniably popular and critically adored…

The Dark Knight quickly became the anointed cure to the Academy’s problem. This was a film in the vein of past Best Picture nominees like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, one that was extremely well made and extremely well received. A solution to the Academy’s woes had serendipitously fallen in to their laps at just the right moment. All they had to do was nominate it.

Well, we all know that did not happen. Instead of including Nolan’s film in the Best Picture field, the Academy opted to go with box office heavy-hitters like Milk and The Reader and Frost/Nixon. Backlash was palpable. Even ceremony host Hugh Jackman would go on to sing about the snub in his opening monologue. But more than all that, a general air of disappointment was felt by most of the people who follow these sorts of things (Just me? Cool.) The Academy got their reward in kind. While viewership ticked up slightly, the 2009 broadcast was still the third lowest watched telecast of the new millennium as well as third lowest since viewership numbers became available all the way back in 1974. (If all this sounds like I’m beating a dead horse, it’s because I am. Anyone who knows me will tell you that when I meet strangers at a party, before I tell them my name and where I’m from, I’ll tell them that I was pissed The Dark Knight didn’t get a Best Picture nomination.)

After the numbers came in, the Academy (or at least their Board of Governors) realized that significant change was needed. If they could not rely on their members to get off their high horses and nominate a film like The Dark Knight, then they had to force the issue. So, in June of 2009 and seemingly out-of-the-blue, The Academy announced that they would be making a massive change to their marquee category. Now, instead of five nominees, there would be a mandatory ten. The message was clear: viewership is down, so to fight that we are going to add more popular films by adding more nominees. Most pundits attribute this change directly to The Dark Knight, especially with then-President Sid Ganis famously being quoted as saying, “I’d be lying if The Dark Knight did not come up in the discussion.” The hope was that with ten nominees, films like The Dark Knight could finally have legitimate shots of winding up in the race and therefore they could bring their billion dollars worth of fans to actually watch it possibly win! This was the hope for the new rule, but did it actually work?

If the method to raise viewership was to add more nominees to the mix and thusly include more popular films, then looking at the box office rankings of nominees will yield the most useful set of data to see if that goal was achieved. Box office performance is the most accurate measurement of “popularity” that we have, but a raw number of millions of dollars does not tell us much. Inflation is a thing and some years are just bigger years for moviegoing than others. Instead, looking at the box office ranks of films, isolated to their own specific year, should prove more accurate. In other words, the #1 film at the box office in any given year can be deemed the most popular film of that year and that will not change from year to year. To be #1 is to be #1. Now a #1 film in one year could make more money than a #1 film the previous year, but that does not matter. Remember, we are trying to measure popularity, not money.

So, if we were to look at the nominees for Best Picture in a given year and look up all their box office rankings in that year, that could tell us if the Academy was on point in nominating popular films, or if they went niche and only nominated small art house films. We could add up all the rankings of the nominees and divide it by the total number of nominees to create a box office ranking average for each year of nominees. Here’s an example:

Year: 2000

Nominee (Box Office Rank)

Gladiator (#4)

Chocolat (#32)

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (#12)

Erin Brockovich (#13)

Traffic (#15)

AVG. BOX OFFICE RANK = 15.2

We can do this for multiple years of nominees and see how the averages all compare to each other. From there we can try and see if there is a trend. In this scenario, having a low number is actually a good thing because that means your average is based on a lot of the nominees being pretty high in the box office ranks.

Note, the key flaw to this method is that there are not a set number of films that come out every year. More films can be made in one year versus the next and the trend shows that over time more and more films are getting made on an annual basis. What I mean is that there’s a value difference between being ranked #50 out of 300 films and #50 out of 600 films. It is kind of like how we can determine the “hitter-friendliness” of baseball stadiums based on a field’s construction and the altitude of the ballpark. Some parks are just easier to hit home runs in. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that the trends will prove accurate even with this egregious oversight included. If someone wants to weight the averages and come back to me with a “true” trend, please do.

So, without further ado, here’s a chart that looks at the average box office rank of all Best Picture nominees since the year 2000 (a fifteen year sample size).

Remember, high numbers in this instance are “bad” for all intents and purposes. The chart shows that since the new millennium, The Academy is trending sharply towards nominating smaller, more art-house films instead of box office smashes. That might come as a “No, duh!” statement, but I find it is always important to back up emotional observations with raw facts.

Now this chart simply gives the numbers, but it hardly answers why, when given the chance, Oscar voters still do not nominate box office hits. That, I’m afraid, is an unquantifiable study. Could it be that box office hits these days are typically not really good movies? Could it be that the Academy is the ultimate group of elitist, hipster film snobs? A combination of both? Your answer to why this chart is the way that it is probably depends on your answers to all of those questions.

Returning to our main question: Did the expansion from five to ten nominees in 2009 in order to include more popular films (like The Dark Knight) really work? Looking at the chart, the answer seems to be no. In the first year of expansion, we had three Top Ten Box Office films make the cut (Avatar, Up, and The Blind Side), followed by two in 2010 (Toy Story 3 and Inception), none in 2011 and 2012, one in 2013 (Gravity), and one in 2014 (American Sniper). Eliminate the fine work from Pixar animation (because animated films in the Best Picture race these days is usually a token nod to the film’s quality and not an indicator of it actually being competitive) and your trend is two, one, zero, zero, one, one. Another relevant hypothetical question would be whether any of those films would have been nominated had there only been five nominees. I would say Avatar, Gravity, and American Sniper would have made the cut in their years with The Blind Side, Inception, and the animated films left out. Point being, half of the box office hits that have made the cut since expansion would probably have wound up in the race anyway.

The next big thing to consider is how the expansion affected viewership, if at all. Since the true goal of expansion was to goose ratings, it would be important to see if there was a significant ratings boost post-2009. Let’s take a look:

It would appear that the answer is yes and no. 2009 did see an uptick in ratings and, after a dip in 2010, there was steady growth in viewership over the next three years, including a record high for the millennium in 2013. This only magnifies the poor ratings performance of 2014, which saw a significant dip in viewers and featured the lowest viewership rating out of all the expansion years.

It would probably take a few more years to get a solid enough sample size to determine if expansion years consistently stay at or above average in comparison to pre-2009 years, but that does not mean the Academy shouldn’t keep a weary eye on this year’s numbers. While expansion brought the ratings back to their average range, it did not skyrocket them to record highs. Who knows what the Academy’s expectations were, but if they wanted to see numbers in the high 40s/low 50s, then expansion did not get them there. Now if 2014 is an outlier, viewers come back, and they never drop down to dismal 2007/2008 levels (they got dangerously close this year), then expansion could be considered a success, in that it reversed a dangerous trend. It may not have made the ship any better, but it kept it from sinking. Now if the viewers dip again, though, then the Academy might have to face the reality that playing with the number of nominees did not and will not solve their viewership concerns.

Let’s review: The Academy in 2008 saw their viewership numbers at the lowest they have ever been. People said they needed to nominate more popular films and The Dark Knight came along ready to be the poster child for change. The Academy whiffed on that opportunity and saw low ratings again. The Board of Governors, recognizing that they desperately needed to change their ratings, decided to force the issue of popularity and expanded the field of Best Picture nominees. The Academy membership called their bluff and has since used the extra slots they have to nominate more art-house films instead of including box office winners. As a result, viewership has increased back to “normal” levels, but it has not brought the show to consistent new highs.

So, considering all that we have discussed, what should the Academy do? The un-sexy answer (and I would guess the most likely outcome to all this) is to wait a few more years and see how viewership numbers respond over a larger sample size of expansion years. Live, event television like sport games and the Oscars is a commodity in the age of Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and Amazon Prime, so I don’t see the Oscars’ ratings ever dipping significantly. Waiting to see if this year was a fluke might be the best thing to do. Now the argument can justifiably be made that expansion did not really do that much to boost ratings and that voters are not putting popular films in the race even with the extra slots. In that case, why not return to five nominees, quiet the dissention in the ranks, and put to death the “loss-of-prestige” argument? That’s one answer. Another answer is to just finally give Tina and Amy WHATEVER THEY WANT to come aboard Team Oscar and make them our collective Forever Hosts. Yeah, I like that option.