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5% Solution: Why the Oscars’ New First-Preference Rule is a Step in the Wrong Direction…

We’re officially out of the summer blockbuster season, which might lead you to believe that it was time for us film folk to have a bit of a rest. After all, we’ve been yammering on about “box office this” and “3D that” for quite some time now, and it makes sense we’d use the lull to compose ourselves. Of course, we can’t – it’s time to start Oscar-speculating. Because I’m situated in Ireland, there’s no point in me putting together a list of potential nominees, as it would just involve plagiarising countless individuals far more informed than myself. However, I have been thinking quite a bit about the latest amendment to the Academy’s infamous “ten nominees” amendment to their Best Picture nomination process: whereby every nominee will now be required to have at least 5% of the first preference votes. The more I think about it, the more I don’t like it.

Not quite the gold standard anymore?

My objection to the amendment is results-orientated, rather than any philosophical objected to the quota itself. I don’t know enough about political science to debate whether putting that sort of 5% threshold in place represents an attack on the democratic process, but that’s beside the point – AMPAS are their own organisation, and they can choose the Best Picture nominees any way they want. They could pick them from a hat, throw darts at a chart of all the movies released, or even use a ouiji board if they wanted to. It’s their business, and it’s show business, so I’m not going to attack it as “undemocratic.”

However, my skepticism stems from the fact that this process will lead to decisions that I – personally – think are wrong. I concede that there’s a certain amount of bias there, and I never claimed to be impartial. After all, these are awards given by a body and decided on by their members, any claim that they are wrong can hardly be argued to be objective or substantive. That said, I know I’m not alone in my views. I’d also make the case that the Academy appears to have been moving gradually in-line with the expectations of film buffs and movie fans all over the world, and this new rule flies in the face of that.

Forget the Black Swan, what about the Black horse?

Put simply, the only way I can see to judge this amendment is to look at the results it will generate, and compare them against the results that we got before the rule was in place. Because PwC don’t release voting figures for the nomination process (or even to decide the winner), all this is idle speculation. So this argument is already on dodgy ground, but I don’t think I’m being irrational. Let’s make a number of assumptions that I would consider to be “safe.”

The first assumption would be that the “traditional” nominees poll well above the 5% threshold. I am referring to the types of films that would have got the nomination before the category was expanded to include ten films. These are the type of films you can probably identify by looking at the Best Director category at recent ceremonies, given the historical overlap between Best Picture and Best Director. So, last year, I suggest that Black Swan, True Grit, The Fighter, The King’s Speech and The Social Networkwould have been safe. So these are the kinds of films that will not be affected at all by the rule changes, especially given that the category now has a five-film minimum.

It's gonna be a dirty fight...

So, logically, the films that could possibly be affected fall into the other half of the Best Picture nomination list, and which are already – by virtue of not having a Best Director nomination – reduced to the status of “also rans” before the race has really kicked off. Last year, this list would have included Inception, Toy Story 3, 127 Hours, Winter’s Bone and The Kids Are All Right. It seems a fair assumption to make that these are the films that could potentially be removed from contention by this amendment.

However, looking at that list, I can see films that are rather comfortably in the Academy’s wheelhouse, and which fit fairly comfortably with the five frontrunners, feeling like they are cut from the same cloth – the kind of films you could see being mentioned in the same inner-circle conversations. The three contenders from the bottom five that I would classify as “clearly Oscar material” are 127 Hours, Winter’s Bone and The Kids Are All Right. Now, you could make the case that these films and the five frontrunners might have cannibalised each other’s first-preference votes, and I can’t dispute that because the process isn’t open and transparent. However, based simply on the fact that Best Director is selected by “first-past-the-post” polling rather than preferences, and – with, in effect, onlya first preference listed – the five films nominated still wind up looking pretty similar.

It doesn't change the fact that a Best Director nomination for Christopher Nolan is still a pipe dream...

So the films that I feel would have been ignored last year were Christopher Nolan’s Inception and Pixar’s Toy Story 3. Ignoring my own subjective opinion about the quality of those films as measured against their peers, it’s worth considering why the Academy expanded the Best Picture process in the first place. With the viewing figures for the ceremony in free-fall, it was decided that the Oscars should try to engage a bit with the public, instead of nominating movies that nobody had seen. After all, the lowest-watched Oscars ceremony ever had the five lowest-performing Best Picture nominees ever, so it seems a fair connection to make – spurred on by debates over whether the Academy had “snubbed” Christopher Nolan’s box-office-record-shattering and critic-pleasing blockbuster The Dark Knight.

I’ve made the argument before that the ten nominee system was just a band-aid on a more significant problem, and one that couldn’t be fixed with a cosmetic solution. If the Academy wants to engage with the mainstream, which they need to do in order to sell advertising revenue during the show (despite the fact many members seem to sneer at it as “populist”), then they need to look at the people voting on these awards. Hell, it’s been observed that some stars don’t even watch the films involved, and it’s frequently suggested that many outsource the voting to others, as has historically been the case:

One of the frequent criticisms of the Academy Awards is that its aging membership does not reflect popular demographic trends. In fact, there is a full generation gap between the ages of average members of AMPAS and the ages of active filmmakers. There are two or more generations between the ages of average members and average filmgoers. Some voting members are octogenarians who haven’t been to a theater in years.

At least two major stars (Henry Fonda and James Garner) admitted publicly that they let their wives fill out their ballots for them, prompting AMPAS to tighten up its voting procedures.

There was an uproar a few years ago when Samuel L. Jackson refuted claims that he let others fill out his ballot for him, and while I can’t find proof, the fact that such rumours persistantly exist suggests there’s something wrong with the system. Hell, there’s an old joke that “producers’ wives”are the largest Oscar demographic.

I have a bone to pick with the Academy...

More than that, though, one can see the disconnect growing when the Academy refuses membership to Ellen Page and Casey Affleck, while welcoming Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and Adriana Barraza. That’s the real problem, if you ask me. Historically, the Academy has been open to all sorts of stars, including Dom DeLouise and Henry Wrinkler – I suspect the tightening of the ranks in recent years has seen the institution growing increasingly esoteric.

And yet the Academy’s immediate response is that the ten nominees rule deserved to be heavily modified because it diluted the quality of the nominees:

“It’s probably a smart move,” says one academy member. “Ten was stupid in the first place. I talked to 60 people, five of them had 10 best picture picks. Let’s face it, they just don’t make movies like they used to. But nobody wanted to object because the goals were obviously noble. It wasn’t just that Warner made them feel bad after Dark Knight got snubbed [in 2009].” A source tells THR the 2009 board of governors’ vote to make it ten noms was unanimous, though Tom Hanks abstained.  “How in the f— could they have had a unanimous vote with one abstention and yet reverse themselves so completely two years later?” asks the amazed academy member. “They were going to leave it for three years.”

I think that’s part of my problem right there – that a sudden revision like this gives the indication that AMPAS has absolutely no idea what it is actually doing and what it wants to accomplish. Ignoring the that “they just don’t make movies like they used to” is one of those trite clichés that betrays a toxic nostalgia, that comment just sounds so condescending, doesn’t it? And that’s if you don’t believe that creating five additional Best Picture nominees that could never actually win (because they don’t have Best Director nominations) is a rather patronising way of “engaging” with the mainstream as if to say, “The films you want will never win, but watch our show anyway, because now they could win!”

Batman's still venting his frustration over the snub...

Where’s the “change we can believe in”, eh? I guess I might as well give up on any chance of Christopher Nolan scoring an infinitely-overdue Best Director nomination for The Dark Knight Rises, and that I should give up any hope of ever really being surprised when I see the nominees unveiled. Remember when District 9 pulled off a Best Picture nomination that nobody expected and everybody was surprised to see? I actually felt like some of my cynicism about the changes was fading away. I strongly suspect that it’s films like District 9, which was the very essence of the sort of “unexpected but deserving” film that the changes were meant to promote.

I’m more than willing to be proven wrong, but this just feels like a rather big failure on the part of the Academy, mucking up what was – at best – a cosmetic change to fix an underlying problem. Still, we’ll see what the real results of this are come February.

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4 Responses

  1. I’m glad that the Academy made it 5-10, instead of a fixed 10. I have no opinion of the other stuff, though.

    • That’s interesting. I think it’s a good idea to have that sort of flexibility, but I don’t like the lack of transparency and I worry about the films that will suffer as a result.

  2. I must say, the system sounds fine to me. The real problem in my opinion is the members not voting themselves as you too pointed out. (And afterwards not even watching all/any of the nominated movies)
    So I won’t say that is a step in the wrong direction but more of turning a blind eye to the real problem.

    And I really concur Nolan got snubbed last year for best director award with inception. As much as I like that movie, I’m not sure if it was the best movie last year, since I haven’t seen all the nominees but I didn’t see a better directed movie last year.
    And District 9 was better than any of Nolan’s Batman movies, I’m sorry 😛

    • Controversial!

      Each’s own. I liked District 9, but it was well short of any of Nolan’s films, in my humble opinion. But he’ll have to wait until his Howard Hughes bio-pic to get his overdue nomination. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or not, it’s just something that the Academy will like from a director overdue for recognition. My inner cynic will call it “pulling a Scorsese.”

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