A glass half empty view of Oscar's new rules

Last Wednesday on Variety.com and Thursday in Daily Variety, Glenn Whipp explored the upside of 10 best pic noms in a “glass half full” scenario. This is the second of a two-part series on the topic.

When Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Sid Ganis announced the expansion of the best picture category to 10 nominations back in June, everyone was talking about J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” being the kind of movie that might benefit from a wider field. Critics liked it; audiences loved it: It was the type of sturdy popcorn movie that, if nominated, might give the awards telecast a ratings boost — or, at least, stem further viewer erosion.

Now, as Oscar season kicks into gear, nobody is talking about “Star Trek” much anymore. And, as audiences and Academy members have seen most of the Oscar contenders, a vague sense of discomfort hangs over Hollywood as some naysayers wonder how they might possibly fill out a ballot that now includes 10 slots. “This is not 1939,” says one Academy member, who like most people interviewed for this story, asked not to be identified. “I’m just not seeing stuff that’s blowing me away, and it’s October. When the year began, I was hoping for masterpieces. Now I’d just take a good midrange drama, and I’m not even getting that.”

Adds another Academy voter: “You’d think Sid would’ve checked the release-date schedule before doing this.”

To be fair, not everyone feels this way. As mentioned in a Daily Variety piece that ran Oct. 29, many in the industry couldn’t be happier with the best picture expansion, either for the recognition it will bring to deserving films or for the money that will likely arrive in their bank accounts from all the added campaigning.

But even here, many observers carp that the likely beneficiaries of the five new slots — cerebral dramas, foreign-language movies, documentaries — aren’t exactly the kinds of pics that will bring in a bigger television audience on Oscar night.

“This is not the solution,” complains a veteran awards campaign consultant, “and they know it in their heart of hearts. The Academy is going to continue to nominate the kind of indie films that are now being attributed to the declining ratings.”

“I can’t quite hear a voter saying, ‘You know, we’ve never nominated a broad comedy before. Let’s nominate ‘The Hangover,'” adds another longtime Academy member. “Fact is, voters will just keep going deeper and darker than they’ve ever gone. The Coens, Paul Thomas Anderson … they may well have lifetime passes with this bigger playing field.”

The burden, film critic Leonard Maltin says, isn’t on Academy voters to broaden their tastes. It’s up to studios to make better popular entertainments. “That has been done in the past,” Maltin says, citing the bumper crop of 1939 that included “Gone With the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Stagecoach” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” “And it can be done again.”

Film historian David Thomson isn’t so sure: “I think Hollywood has lost its ability to make those kinds of movies. That’s a big problem, and it has changed the nature of the awards. I think the Academy is just going to go even wilder now with the 10 nominees.”

While waiting to see how this year’s pic mix pans out, critics of the expanded field have issues with the ramifications of recognizing 10 films. “People keep going back to that ‘Titanic’ year where the ratings were great,” says one awards season campaigner. “But that was an anomaly.”

Other Oscar watchers voice concern that a 10-nominee field might produce a best picture winner that fewer people really like. Though this isn’t likely — typically, the race narrows down to a couple of movies that have broad support in several other categories — the new math makes it possible for a movie to win with less support than ever.

And it’s not like the nature of the beast is going to change all that much next year.

“Studios have been abandoning dramas more and more this year,” says one Acad member. “So even separate from this field, 2010 is going to be even worse. Just what do they want us to do? Nominate ‘The A-Team?'”

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