Yesterday's announcement that next year's Academy Awards will feature 10 Best Picture nominees instead of 5 certainly put a jolt into a day that was otherwise light on entertainment news (unless philandering governors with valid passports count as "entertainment"), but now that the initial chorus of "who cares" and "oh I don't know, this could be cool" has subsided, it's probably worth taking a moment to consider the ramifications of the new Oscar reality.
First, the standard disclaimer: Yes, the Oscars are largely meaningless. Sometimes the winners are worthy, but most often actors and producers and directors are invited to the podium for reasons largely unrelated to their superiority. Still, it's fun to speculate each year on who might win and why, and there are some ways that the Oscars matter. The telecast and the hoopla surrounding it draws attention to some smaller films, and when done right, the show serves as a kind of advertisement for movies themselves. The conventional wisdom holds that the Academy is making this change in order to sneak a few more popular movies onto the show, which will give the general public more of a rooting interest, and thus perhaps bring the Oscar ratings back up to pre-cable-fragmentation levels. If this proves true, it could potentially bring a fresh set of eyeballs to some low-budget movies that could use the attention.
But if making the Oscars more viewer-friendly is the goal (and no one at the Academy has said as such, I hasten to add), then there are two ways the new Oscar order could backfire. First off, the extra five slots could easily end up being filled out by still more dreary middlebrow fare—or movies already nominated in the animation, documentary and foreign-language categories—instead of the big box office hits. Second off, the odds are likely to be stacked against the "extra" movies, which means viewers who tune in exclusively to root for Star Trek (or whatever) are bound to become as frustrated with the Academy as more art-minded movie buffs are every year.
Also, consider what adding more nominees might do to the voting patterns. One of the problems with the Oscars every year is that by the time the telecast rolls around, months of best-of lists and other award shows have led to a fair amount of fatigue with the recurring set of winners. In theory, giving the Academy members more choices might lead to upsets, since it'll allow the voters to veer away from the frontrunners everyone's already sick of. In actuality, what's more likely to happen is that all the dark horses will beat each other back, and the frontrunner will become even more of a foregone conclusion.
Some have already speculated that widening the field will cheapen the ultimate award, but I don't see it that way. If anything, beating nine contenders instead of four offers a smidgen more legitimacy to the winner. It doesn't mean that the Best Picture winner will more likely be the best movie of the year—let's not get crazy here—but there will be fewer nominees getting votes just because an Academy member can't find anything else on the list that he or she likes. The Oscar voters will be expressing more of an actual preference, not just making a reluctant choice.
Does the wider field diminish what it means to be a nominee? Maybe a little. I'm sure there'll be speculation in the entertainment media—and their attendant comment sections, ahem—about which five nominees are the real nominees, and which are the extras. Some will point to the Best Director nominees as the cue, but since the Top 5 in those categories almost never line-up, that's not exactly fair. Either way, some nominees will be scoffed at. Loudly.
But you know what? That kind of scoffing and speculating may turn out to be the best thing about this change. If it gets people talking about the Oscars, that's good for the show. And if it gets people visiting websites that handicap the Oscars, that's good for those sites. Many movie news site survive largely because of the revenue generated by movie studios placing ads for Oscar hopefuls. More readers—and more hopefuls—means more ads, which means those sites may be able to weather the rough economic times.
And with more Best Picture slots open, studios and indies alike could be pushing harder to get their movies seen. What does that mean to you, the home viewer? It might—just might—mean that some smaller movies get longer runs in the big city arthouses, and even end up finding their way into the hinterlands. Everyone knocks the taste of the Academy (and often with good reason), but it's not like everything that gets nominated is dowdy and self-serious and simplified. And it's certainly true that plenty of excellent movies contend for the honor of contending each season. More of those excellent-but-low-priority movies may put up more than just a token campaign, and as a result, the average movie fan may become more aware of them, and may even get to see them.
Doubling the number of Best Picture nominees may seem like no big deal—and in the grand scheme of things, it really is no big deal—but it's going to give people who write about movies and people who love movies a lot more to talk about in the months to come. This small change may end up having a deeper impact than you might think.