The Academy Changes 'Best Picture' Rules

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences received some backlash when it announced the expansion of the "best picture" category to 10 films for the 82nd Academy Awards. Critics questioned whether a "best picture" nomination would lose its meaning with so many films in the category. Now, the Academy is modifying the rules again — anywhere from five to 10 films could now be nominated. Melissa Block speaks with Steven Zeitchik, film writer for The Los Angeles Times, about the decision.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

For the past two years, the Academy Awards has broadened its scope.

Mr. STEVE MARTIN (Host, 2010 Academy Awards): The biggest change this year, the Best Picture category has doubled. And when that was announced, all of us in Hollywood thought the same thing: What's five times two?

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: That was Oscar host Steve Martin in 2010, explaining that the Best Picture category had swelled from five to 10.

Well, now the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has decided to rethink that. Steven Zeitchik covers film for the Los Angeles Times and he joins us to explain.

And, Stephen, the Academy is saying, well, next year there could be five best picture nominees, there might be 10, there might be somewhere in between. How is it going to work?

Mr. STEVEN ZEITCHIK (Film Writer, Los Angeles Times): Well, it's a very arcane process, as is all things Academy-related. But, as I understand it, what basically they're going to do this kind of keep the same sort of ranking system that they used to nominate films, Best Picture contenders, throughout the Academy's history. But instead, they're going to add this little sort of catch, where if a film does not get five percent of the first-place votes, they will not get a slot.

So in other words, it could be the sixth-most-popular film, but if it doesn't get that critical mass, then it won't make the cut. And again, in so doing, what they're trying to do is stop films that are kind of sort of broadly liked but not really loved by anyone and ensuring that those films don't find their way onto the list.

BLOCK: Well, if you look at the Best Picture nominees from the past two years, when it was expanded to 10, can you look at those and say immediately, you know, there are a couple on here that just really shouldn't have made the cut?

Mr. ZEITCHIK: Well, that's certainly been the parlor game the last two years as the nominations have been announced. And even this morning here in Hollywood, everyone's kind of saying, you know, which films were right on the bubble?

"The Blind Side" was one movie that I think, safe to say, was not a conventional Academy Best Picture choice. This is the Sandra Bullock football sort of tearjerker, and I think a lot of people thought it was on the bubble.

But you make a really interesting point. I think part of what could happen here, even though this move sort of politicizes things even further because now we're debating not only what films should make it but how many films we should have.

I think what it also does is maybe take out some of these sort of more harebrained candidates, where it used to be - all right, you know, any film could make it, there are 10 slots. Now it becomes a question of, all right, well maybe "The Hangover," which people were talking about two years ago, or films of that ilk are not necessarily going to have a shot because the Academy isn't compelled to go all the way up to 10 choices.

BLOCK: Was there a feeling in Hollywood that by expanding to 10 Best Picture nominees, it kind of diluted the brand in a way?

Mr. ZEITCHIK: Well, you know, I think that was the criticism when it was first announced. What's funny about Hollywood is that people have very short memories. So, where two years ago, when this was first announced, people said: How can you do this? You're diluting the brand. You know, you're expanding it, something that isn't meant to be expanded.

What you've had now over the last 12 or 16 hours or so is people saying: Well, wait a second. We liked 10. We like having this democracy. Why are we suddenly cutting back on that? So I think maybe there's just a kind of knee-jerk sort of curmudgeonliness(ph) that happens.

But there has been that strain, and I think what this allows the Academy to do is to have it both ways, where they now can go further, but they're not going to feel like they have to, which maybe will prevent some of this dilution.

BLOCK: And do you think this means that when nominees are announced, and people look at that number, it'll be kind of a benchmark, a barometer of how good the year in movies was? In other words, if there are nine movies or 10 movies, that was a really good year. If there were only five or six, not so great.

Mr. ZEITCHIK: Absolutely, and I think that's a really good point here. You know, I think we get very caught up when we talk about the number, in thinking: Well, how many films or which films will make it? Which will be on the bubble, and which won't? But the fact of the matter is that just the very idea of nominating, you know, fewer or more Best Picture candidates will kind of say where we are. And I think going forward, what we'll really see here is whether the Academy feels that there is kind of a deep crop or whether it's a more fallow season.

BLOCK: Steven Zeitchik covers film for The Los Angeles Times. Steven, thanks so much.

Mr. ZEITCHIK: Thanks for having me.

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