Oscar 10: Great or grating?

Hollywood is still torn over boost in best-film noms

Halfway through the 1952 musical comedy “Singin’ in the Rain,” Monumental Pictures previews its first sound film, “The Duelling Cavalier” (“100% all talkie!”). The screening is disastrous, but star Lina Lamont is too dense to notice the jeers of the audience or the fact that her co-workers are shell-shocked. Happy and oblivious, she enthuses to no one in particular, “I liked it!”

That’s sort of how I felt June 24, the day the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences announced the plan for 10 nominations for best pic. While many were raging or groaning, I thought it was a swell idea. For anyone covering the Oscars, this was a radical move, which is fun, and a sign that the Academy is open to change. But, more than that, I hoped (and continue to hope) that voters at the Acad — and the Producers Guild, which later announced a similar move — could expand their definition of excellence. Oscar voters have generally avoided fun films in recent years; for many in Hollywood, enjoyment seems to be a guilty pleasure.

AFI, the Broadcast Film Critics and the Golden Globes, which annually salute 10, recently have nominated most of the Oscar contenders — as well as “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Dreamgirls,” “Walk the Line,” “Finding Nemo,” “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and, yes, “Dark Knight” and “Wall-E.” There would have been nothing embarrassing if any of those had been Oscar-nommed.

But there is a sobering thought: What if 10 noms is just an opportunity for more of the same? It’s one thing for “Dark Knight” and “Wall-E” to be shut out of the top five, but what if they’d been shut out of the top 10? Yikes.

All right, I’ve had my say. Now, in the interests of equal time and fair play, let’s hear from those who are adamant that the expansion to 10 f ilms is not a good idea. Here is a cross-section of voters who offer some persuasive arguments against the move.

Argument No. 1: Having 10 nominees dilutes the prestige.

Fox co-chairman Tom Rothman is passionate about this, and he’s one of the few willing to go on record. “I think it was an unfortunate decision, and I hope they reconsider next year. Oscar nominations have retained their unique value, their specialness through all the years and in the face of all the wannabes, precisely because they are rare and hard to come by. And because sometimes even great films get missed. Making them twice as common instantly devalues them.”

Argument No. 2: I can barely find five good films in one year.

Producer and marketing vet Dennis Rice says: “Every year I have a hard time picking five, so finding 10 is going to be next to impossible. If a movie is good enough to get nominated, it should be good enough to win, and having 10 contenders hurts that thesis.”

Argument No. 3: The Academy is just trying to improve Oscar ratings.

AMPAS denies this, and it’s certainly a slippery slope if the lines are blurred between awards criteria and TV entertainment. But, shrugs one Academy member, “There’s nothing you can do to make people watch if they’re not interested. For years, there was nothing like the Oscars on TV, but tastes change. Otherwise, we’d still be watching Ed Sullivan and ‘Gunsmoke.’ ” Rice says if viewership is down, it’s because of the glut of kudocasts. “The audience is saying ‘All right already, how many times can Hollywood salute itself?’ This is what’s causing (audience erosion), it’s not the disconnect between nominees and popular films.” Yet another voter says, “I think it will have the reverse effect of what they expect. If there had been 10 nominees last year, I’m sure ‘The Visitor’ would have been in there. And I bet three of the five added nominees are going to be of the same shape and size as ‘The Visitor.’ This might be good for indie films, but it’s not going to be good for blockbusters.”

OK, voters, there you have it. Fill out your forms with your minds and hearts. But just remember: The whole world is watching.

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