Academy Builds Surprise Into Best Picture Rules

Academy Builds Surprise Into Best Picture Rules.

You may remember back a couple of months ago when, as an aside, I advocated that the Academy Awards should move to a voting system similar to sports hall of fame voting. Here’s what I said at the time:

“In short, some years are weaker than others in terms of the number of quality films. In those years, the Academy Awards will make bad choices because it has to. (Though, it would be ridiculously awesome to see a system like Sports Hall of Fame voting where if movies or actors don’t reach a certain threshold of votes, there is no best picture/actor/actress from that year)”

Well, they’ve gone and done it. Not for all the categories, but for Best Picture. The link above is to the full press release, but in short, only films that receive at least 5% of first place votes will be included as a Best Picture nominee. There can be no fewer than five, but no more than ten. I’m guessing that means if four or fewer films receive 5% of first place votes, they’ll go with the next highest percentage to round out the field to five.

So, why make this change now?

Most assume that when the field was expanded to ten nominees two years ago, it was done so to ensure that more mainstream films made the cut. (By mainstream, I mean a film that had a wide release and made significant money,which is a good, but not perfect, proxy for the number of people who saw it.) On some level this made sense, five was an arbitrary number and ratings of the telecast were dropping. If the number of nominees increased to ten (still arbitrary), inevitably more mainstream films would be nominated and more people would pay attention to the awards.

So, if that assumption is true, what has happened to change the Academy’s views on this? Not only will this change undoubtedly lead to fewer movies being nominated (there still can be no more than ten), but also it goes back to leaving the less critically acclaimed films out of the field. This is a clear move against the inclusion of mainstream films.

Since the Academy does not release the actual percentage of first place votes a film receives, we’ve got to (at least partly) base our analysis on conjecture. Here’s my guess to where the cut off for the 5% first-place vote would be for each year. The films in parenthesis indicate not making the field under the new voting system.

The 2010 nominees were:

The Hurt Locker


Inglourious Basterds


Up in the Air

(An Education)


(A Serious Man)

(District 9)

(The Blind Side)

The 2011 nominees were:

The King’s Speech

The Social Network


Black Swan

The Fighter

True Grit

Toy Story 3

(Winter’s Bone)

(127 Hours)

(The Kids Are All Right)

Under the new voting system, only one film in 2010 (Avatar) and two (maybe three) films in 2011 (Inception and Toy Story 3, maybe True Grit) would be considered “mainstream.” If my assumptions are correct, the past two years would have only seen three of the twelve Best Picture nominees be mainstream fare. This post isn’t meant to cast judgment on whether or not it’s good to “water down” the field, it’s meant more as a question as to why the Academy is changing it’s stance on this.

The Academy probably sees this as a good compromise between the two previous ways of nominating. This ensures that if there are more than five good films in a year that they’ll be recognized, but it also ensures that less-worthy potential nominees don’t make the cut because of an arbitrary number of films that are required to make the field. I’m torn in my own opinion of this. The only film that I would say has no business being in the ten best of each year is the Blind Side. While I like the idea of getting more exposure for good (but not great) films, I’m not sure giving them the title of “one of the year’s ten best” is the best way of doing that. In the end, I come back to liking the new system because it renews its focus on selecting the best film of the year, not the ten best. So while it may be a slap in the face to the old adage, “it’s an honor to just be nominated,” we will now know that every film in the field is a (relatively) legitimate contender for Best Picture.