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Oscars changing in response to lower viewership

The 82nd Academy Awards are upon us. A much-debated, high-pressure, and often hairy event, the Academy Awards captures both the industry and the public attention throughout the season, when nominations are announced, through campaigning, and then at the big kahuna itself. Needless to say, the pressure is on the nominees, and anticipation is building among both casual movie lovers hoping to see their favorites honored and film buffs and industry specialists monitoring the artistic and political tides. In addition, this year’s ceremony is an experiment of sorts, as there are now ten Best Picture nominees, with an unprecedented dominance of blockbusters on the list.
The biggest awards show in the film industry, the Academy Awards ceremony, also called “the Oscars” after the affectionate name for the statuette awarded to winners, has been televised annually in Hollywood for 81 years. The Academy Award is the oldest and most prestigious media award and the event itself is a crowning political, social, and fashion event for Hollywood. Naturally, it is not without its detractors, and despite the adage that “it’s an honor just to be nominated,” the prestige is such that a win is exhilarating and a loss is devastating.
The awards are handled by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a collection of 6,000 directors, screenwriters, cinematographers, actors (22% of membership), and other film professionals. The membership list is typically concealed, although you can imagine there are some big names, including past winners, on the list (obviously, they are not allowed to vote on their own nominations). Because the Academy is comprised of people in the industry, though, two things happen that have brought both public and industry criticism down on the awards.
One, the films that are honored are typically honored for their social and political weight; it is presumable that by honoring politically daring films, the road continues to be paved for film as a medium for artistic and political expression, and the tide of Hollywood will turn from its current business angle into more artistic avenues. However, films that are too daring or don’t fit a dramatic genre are often excluded.
Two, films that are made for a more common audience—typically comedies or those of the fantasy/superhero genre—are shunned (with exceptions; witness “The Lord of the Rings”), and films that have a more refined aesthetic or the weight of prestigious filmmakers and actors are shooed in as nominees. Thus, even the best comedy or superhero movie with excellent writing and acting is never expected to garner even a nom; conventional wisdom is, “That’s what the Golden Globes are for.”
With declining viewership and increasing criticism in recent years, the Board of Governors of the Academy has increased the number of Best Picture nominees for this year. Best Picture winners of recent years include The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King,” “Braveheart,” “Chicago,” and Crash.” Traditionally, there have been five nominees, and as evidenced by the list of winners, the genres vary widely. By expanding the number of nominated films, the Academy hopes to reconnect with the typical moviegoer (as many observed last year, no one even saw “The Reader”). Surprisingly, the Best Picture includes not only the usual suspects: a war film (“The Hurt Locker”), a daring drama (“An Education”), an intelligent comedy (“Up in the Air”), a gutwrencher (“Precious”), and a Coen brothers film (“A Serious Man”), but a feel-good drama (“The Blind Side”), a dark comedy/action film (“Inglourious Basterds”), two science-fiction films (“Avatar” and “District 9”) and an animated film (“Up”), which is curious since the Best Animated Feature award was created in 2001 to honor the animated films that never won Best Picture (before “Up,” “Beauty and the Beast” was the first and only animated Best Picture nominee). But perhaps the biggest surprise, considering the expansion of the category, is the exclusion of “Star Trek” from the list. Perhaps there was just too much science fiction this year.
By expanding the list, the Academy is possibly worsening a problem it may have been trying to fix. By pitting these very different films against one another, are they removing the monopoly dramatic and daring films have over films that are inventive and good in a different way? Or are they fracturing the vote such that the winner won’t be a clear champion in film? Many Oscar watchers and industry experts are arguing that regardless of past rules or the new system, “The Hurt Locker” is the Cloverfield behemoth that will take all, because it has swept the major awards in the Golden Globes and SAG awards. Others feel that the influx of blockbusters and the new voting system, which requires that Academy members rank the nominees rather than voting for one, paves the way for “Avatar” to become the top-grossing Best Picture winner of all time.
“Avatar” has not only the momentum of nine noms, but a healthy serving of critical acclaim along with its bonafide blockbuster status and the ever-rising 3-D fever. Indeed, five movies that topped $100 million in domestic gross have been nominated for Best Picture. After the Board of Governors expanded the Best Picture race, presumably to allow popular films to be included, the Academy voters more than obliged, pitting five blockbusters against five artsier films.
Beyond the Best Picture drama to unfold, the Oscar producers, Bill Mechanic, CEO of Pandemonium Films and “Hairspray” director Adam Shankman, are hoping to top Hugh Jackman’s showstopper from last year, and are treating viewers to first-time host Alec Baldwin, who’s joining Steve Martin—this is the first time there has been more than one host since 1987.
Speaking of firsts, first-time nominees comprise over half of the acting nominations—an increase from last year—and include Jeremy Renner, Colin Firth, Sandra Bullock, newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, Carey Mulligan, Stanley Tucci, Christoph Waltz, Christopher Plummer, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Mo’Nique. With so many first-timers, some Oscar watchers predict “upsets” of the expected winners, pondering whether Jeremy Renner (“The Hurt Locker”) will upset Jeff Bridges (“Crazy Heart”), whether Gabourey Sidibe (“Precious”) will upset Sandra Bullock (“The Blind Side”), or if anyone can upset Christoph Waltz for his performance in “Inglourious Basterds.”
Needless to say, there’s much at stake this year, not only for the nominees but for the future of Oscar. Will the Oscars begin to reflect what people really watch, or will the top-budget films begin to shift their standards to become Oscar contenders? As we watch “Avatar” and “The Hurt Locker” duke it out for Best Picture, the paradox of Hollywood as both business and artistic endeavors and the eternal question of what makes a good film are shoved to the front of everyone’s mind. And even beyond that the questions are many: Will a science-fiction or animated film win Best Picture? Will a newcomer beat out Meryl Streep for Best Actress? Will a Harry Potter film finally win an award? Will Tarantino? Will “Star Trek” win anything? And, how much bigger can James Cameron’s head get?

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