OSCAR SHOCKER! Academy Builds Surprise & Secrecy Into Best Picture Race: Now There Can Be 5 To 10 Nominees

Tuesday night’s vote by the Board of Governors made another major change in the Best Picture Oscar race. But this time, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences has found a good way to inject suspense and freshness back into the race without moving the ceremony earlier (at least yet). By requiring a minimum of 5% of first-place votes in order to receive a Best Pic nod, the Academy is going to keep us guessing right up to the announcement of the nominees. That rightfully puts the emphasis on the quality, rather than quantity, of the contenders. Depending on how those first-place votes turn out, we once again can have a year with only five nominees or, like the past two years, with 10 nominees, or any number in between. The latter is the most likely scenario as the Academy in their press release points out that, in their study of the years 2001 to 2008, there were “years that would have yielded 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 nominees.”

Although there were many supporters in the Academy for the move in the 2009 and 2010 Best Picture competition to expand to 10 nominees from the locked number of five that had been in place since 1944, there seemed to be just as many detractors who thought the larger number of candidates devalued the worth of a nomination. It was done largely because popular critical successes like The Dark Knight were passed over. With the new rule of 10 nominees, such popular box office hits as Up, The Blind Side, District 9, and Inception each earned Best Pic stripes they likely would not have received if only five films had been eligible. The move was originally proposed by 2008 Oscar show producers Bill Condon and Larry Mark, but they actually suggested it should be eight nominees as it was in 1931-1932. After a committee studied the proposal, the Board voted to make it 10 nominees just as it had been in the years 1936 to 1943, the last time there were more than five nominees until 2009.

But not everyone was happy about this, and many Academy voters have been vocal in their opposition. This move by the Board should quiet that kind of criticism as it represents a compromise for both views. It also injects real additional interest and higher stakes into the Academy’s nomination announcement which comes near the end of a long campaign season.

The feeling is the Academy has to do something to reinvigorate its contest, which has been losing the suspense factor due to the large number of pre-Oscar awards shows such as the Golden Globes, Critics’ Choices, SAG Awards, and others that dominate the conversation in December and January. By the time Oscar noms roll around near the end of January, everyone is tired and the race predictable.

The common wisdom has been that the Academy would try to combat this by simply moving their show earlier, perhaps into January. That idea is still very much on the table, and in fact the Acad has recently made some strategic moves such as changing eligibility dates for the Documentary competition in order to prepare for an Oscar date as early as 2013 (for the 2012 awards year). Also by beginning the switch to online voting.

Regarding the latter, the Academy has begun collecting email addresses of members, but there are problems, particularly with higher-profile Acad voters who don’t want to provide their personal emails. (The Academy does not want a situation in which, for example, Brad Pitt’s assistant could actually fill out the cyber ballot.) Also, online voting is a problem for many older members who have reportedly been calling the Academy with concerned inquiries about the issue.

As far as the earlier date is concerned, the Academy is still waiting to see if the NFL is going to add two more postseason games, thereby extending pro football well into February. But a very reliable inside source assures me that the Oscars would not move any earlier than the end of January or the first Sunday in February regardless of what they do. For 2013, that would mean either Jan. 27 or less likely Feb. 3 (where the Super Bowl is currently scheduled).

My source, who is very involved in the ongoing process, says in addition to figuring out online voting and the complicated schedules for different categories like Docs and Foreign Films, the fact is the Board moves “very slowly.” Tuesday’s Best Picture rule change is a nice way to inject interest in the Oscar race while giving them time to figure out all their other chess moves.