Why 10 Best Picture nominees means more winners (including us)

As the minutes tick away until Sunday evening when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hands out its awards, credentialed reporters and armchair experts alike continue to prognosticate and pick what films and filmmakers will come away as winners. While this is commonplace every year, 2010 is unique in that it’s the first time in decades that the AMPAS has nominated more than five films for Best Picture, perhaps the most coveted of all awards. But while such an expansion might superficially mean there are additional consolation parties to attend come Oscar night, the bottom line is that ten nominees actually benefits everyone in the long run.

While the decision to recruit Oscar-winning writer and director Bill Condon to revamp the 2009 ceremony offered a new way of announcing winners, last year’s awards were met with criticism that they favored obscure or independent fare over mainstream blockbusters. The primary reason for this seemed to be the exclusion of The Dark Knight as a Best Picture nominee; it was by most accounts considered a critical smash as well as a commercial one, which led some viewer to question why the Academy refused (or chose) not to honor the film that was among the most acclaimed of the year. Meanwhile, numerous critics groups awarded it their highest honors.

The ’09 ceremony was met with mixed reviews, but as a result of this perceived snub, or perhaps just to throw out another change as a way to entice viewers, the AMPAS expanded their nominations for Best Picture to ten selections. This year’s nominees include: Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, A Serious Man, Up, and Up in the Air. While there was perhaps no clear critical and commercial tidal wave this year to rival that of The Dark Knight, Avatar’s nomination seems as driven by its almost assured place in pop culture history, both because of its record-breaking box office receipts as its groundbreaking technological advancement, not to mention the way in which its simplistic story entranced and inspired audiences of all ages.

But even with other, lower-key critical/commercial champs in the running, including District 9, The Blind Side, and Up, for the most part it seems like business as usual at the AMPAS: The Hurt Locker has been a Best Picture favorite for months, and Up in the Air broke out as a contender after the 2009 Toronto Film Festival and picked up steam as the year came to a close. The question, then, remains what the addition of these other nominees means; if the Academy isn’t going to honor Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen in addition to their usual indie darlings, then what’s the point?

The answer is fairly simple: more nominations means more movies get recognized, and as a result more movies get the visibility they deserve – and then get a better chance to be seen. With movie attendance fluctuating as the cost of tickets and concessions rise, more and more people are opting out of going to the theater to see new movies. As a result, the independent and limited-release films that don’t have substantial marketing budgets don’t get seen, and then they get forgotten when they arrive on DVD or cable. But with more nominations comes greater exposure, and hopefully as a result, bigger returns for smaller films.

In terms of the show itself, rewards may be reaped immediately, as the sense of competition is enhanced by having more and more recognizable films vying for Best Picture. Whether this necessarily means that duty-bound attendees, pundits and longtime watchers will spend more time considering what film will actually win the award matters little; because newcomers to the show, drawn in not only by the choices, but the change itself, has an opportunity to introduce the show to a whole new group of people who previously hadn’t considered the show and the ceremony a must-see event.

For example, The Blind Side is a serviceable based-on-a-true-story drama, but other than its sort of grassroots success and surprising acclaim, the film isn’t an obvious choice for Best Picture. Quite frankly, it stands in sharp opposition to the downer stuff that has dominated Oscars in the past, such as Crash, and seems far to populist to net serious consideration, much less a Best Picture nomination. But now that this film is not only a box office hit and a critical smash, but a full-fledged cultural phenomenon and religious-friendly entertainment to boot, there’s likely a whole group of viewers who might have considered the AMPAS too liberal or artsy but who now might tune in to see if “their film” nabs the award.

Ditto the supporters of Precious, The Hurt Locker and Avatar, all films that have had strong presences at other awards ceremonies and this year created a fascinating drama among viewers and awards-show attendees to see which of them would win. Although the most obvious choice of a draw among the three, there’s definitely a curiosity factor for Avatar fans to see if the film will win, which will almost certainly launch its own speculation whether or not the award was an apology for last year’s Dark Knight snub, or truly a final reward for its stunning, history-making commercial success.

Regardless why people will be watching, however, the fact remains that there are more choices than ever to investigate, consider and explore, at least as far as Best Picture is concerned, and that variety will undoubtedly make for some memorable moments Sunday night when the envelope is opened and the winner announced. But simply seeing the awards themselves, as always, continues to promote and champion the entertainment and the art of moviemaking, and more choices now for voters means we’ll have more to vote on in the future – both with their nominations, and with our wallets.

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