The Best Picture Oscar gets even less important

By Felix Salmon
June 24, 2009

Joe Weisenthal is right that the value of a Best Picture nomination has just plunged, now that the number of Best Picture nominees has doubled. What he doesn’t mention is that although there might be some marginal boost for film studios who would otherwise not have gotten a Best Picture nomination at all, there is probably going to be a significant devaluation of the actual Best Picture award.

The Oscars — like much mass media — are in trouble these days, and are having difficulty keeping the interest of the general public, and one of the main reasons is that the Best Picture award tends to go to relatively small and arty films rather than the blockbusters watched by a large chunk of the population. (It’s no coincidence that the 2004 awards, where the Best Picture gong went to Lord of the Rings, got the highest ratings in recent history.)

The move to 10 nominees from five is only going to exacerbate this problem: under the Academy’s first-past-the-post voting system, a film could theoretically win the award with less than 15% of the total vote. And as a result, tiny but much-loved films will have a serious advantage over big all-things-to-all-people features, which are much less likely to be any given voter’s absolute favorite movie of the year.

So while this might be a good move in the short term for the studios, it’s a bad move in the long term for the Oscars. I don’t think it’ll last.


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But wait – in 2004, nobody knew who would get the award until the very end of the show. How on earth could that affect ratings for the whole program?

Posted by Bridgie | Report as abusive

Somewhat echoing Bridgie, just glancing at the last 10 years’ worth of best picture nominees and winners, it looks to me like the winner was very seldom a small/arty film, though many (most?) of the nominees were.

Since 2000, the lowest-ranked winning film was 2005′s Crash, which was 49th in total gross that year. Next was No Country For Old Men (36th in 2007), then Million Dollar Baby (24th in 2004). But all the others were top-20, which doesn’t seem small to me.

LOTR was 1st, Gladiator was 4th, Chicago was 10th, A Beautiful Mind was 11th, The Departed was 15th, and Slumdog Millionaire was 16th.

Posted by Bob Montgomery | Report as abusive

In 2009 they had a good chance to improve their ratings, giving a nod to “The Dark Knight”, instead, they did the same ol’ thing and nominated dark horses like “Doubt” which weren’t going to win anyways.

Posted by Somebody | Report as abusive

Felix, my first thought, too, was “they’d better drop the first-past-the-post system for choosing a winner”. The mechanism by which nominees are selected is more or less designed to collect a similar number of votes for each nominee; your 15% isn’t just an extreme hypothetical, but is fairly likely.

If they used a Condorcet method or something else to mitigate this problem, they might get more popular winners. If that doesn’t work, though, blame the voters; there’s only so much a good voting system can do.

Yes, I’m with Bridgie… argument doesn’t seem to make sense here.
Plus, previous best picture winners have included lots of high-grossing films – it’s been ages since the Academy picked something that wasn’t a roaring commercial success. (Amadeus, maybe?)
In fact, I’d argue that this is a good thing for Oscars viewership – people won’t watch because their favourite wins, because they don’t know in advance, but they’ll watch if their favourite is nominated (and by that I mean a film they really loved, not just ‘the best one I’ve seen recently’). This doubles the number of people whose best-loved film gets nominated, so it doubles the viewership.

Posted by ajay | Report as abusive

I’m not sure how much the studios have won. Their marketing costs – because one a film is nominated, they have to spend cash to promote it – have just gone up. And still only one film wins.

Posted by a | Report as abusive

The Academy Awards have been an artistic sham from the word jump; it’s hard for me to get worked up about this. Back when we used to have Oscar parties (it’s funny to think we used to need an excuse to have a cocktail party), the recurring joke was that you didn’t have to study the Documnetary entries at all–you just waited for the clips and voted for the one about the Holocaust. (Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, anyone?)

To say nothing of the ultimate marketing effort to the jury that resulted in the Best Picture nomination of Chocolat. Or the generational phenonemon of the big, beautiful, expensive movie that wins awards by the wheelbarrow load, but just isn’t very good in the cold light of morning: Ben Hur for our parents, Titanic for us. Who remembers James Cameron’s moment of supreme assininity, when he asked us all to feel our pulses and made like he was sharing the most profound truths about life? Because of Titanic?!?!

The show itself is scentifically designed to inflict the greatest possible pain on an audience without driving them to change the channel, and the best Oscar moment I can remember is the bitter, classless, sour grapes editorial Annie Proulx wrote after Brokeback Mountain lost to Crash. That one is well worth Googling. Oh, and there was that American Indian woman who refused Marlon Brando’s award, for reasons that are still a bit unclear, and went on to pose naked in Playboy. Only in America.

Posted by Craig | Report as abusive

I couldn’t care less who wins or gets nominated for an Oscar, but it seems to me that some of the other commenters here are on the right track. Viewership numbers for the Oscars depends on the nominees, not the eventual winners, which aren’t known until after the telecast. Having more mainstream nominees will help viewership numbers, at least on the margins.

So I disagree with you conclusion. This is good news for the Oscars, bad news for the studios.

Posted by Jason | Report as abusive

Tyler Cowen pointed out that they nominated 10+ movies for best picture during the 1930s and early 1940s and it wasn’t obviously disastrous. rd_for_Best_Picture#1920s

Posted by Bob Montgomery | Report as abusive

Ann Althouse posts an e-mail pointing out a manner in which this might actually increase the chance of a blockbuster winning the actual award here: -there-will-be-10-nominees-for-best.html

Posted by Nathan | Report as abusive