A glass half full view of Academy's new rules

This report marks one side of a two-part look at how the industry feels about Oscar’s new rules. For the glass half empty view, see Nov. 2-8’s weekly Variety or check back to Variety.com this Friday.

Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences saw their first glimpse of Oscar’s new math earlier this month when they opened their mailboxes and found the year’s first official Academy screener. The movie: the headbanging, underdog documentary “Anvil! The Story of Anvil.” The category: best picture.

Best picture? “Anvil!”?

“Hey, we know it’s a million-to-one shot,” says “Anvil!” director Sacha Gervasi. “But the whole thing has been a long shot from the beginning. You never know.”

Gervasi’s right about both his film’s improbable chances and the fact that this year, with a best picture category that has doubled in size, nobody really knows how the race is going to unfold. And that’s one reason why many Academy members and Oscar observers couldn’t be happier with the decision to nominate 10 movies this year.

“The Oscars have become a little pretentious lately,” says blockbuster disaster-movie director Roland Emmerich. “There’s a disconnect with the audience. I think it’s good to shake things up. Maybe we’ll see a good movie like ‘District 9,’ something that both critics and audiences loved, get in the race.”

The sci-fi thriller “District 9,” with its allusions to apartheid, could indeed be the kind of smart crowdpleaser that finds its way into the final 10. J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek,” James Cameron’s upcoming “Avatar” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” are also being mentioned as possibilities.

As one Academy insider puts it, “The snarkiest day of the Oscar year is nomination day.” With last year’s picks, he says, the driving question was, “Where’s Batman?” when fans learned that “The Dark Knight” had been snubbed.

But while one, maybe two, commercial movies might make their way to a nomination, boosters of Oscar’s expanded field believe that the main beneficiaries of the new math will be foreign-language films, documentaries and small-scale dramas. That prospect is welcome news in a year that has been rife with bad tidings for indie labels.

“It’s great for us,” says Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard. “Every year there’s 10 movies vying for that final five. If we had 10 nominees last year, (Sony Classics’) ‘Rachel Getting Married’ would have gotten in. The broader opportunities this affords is a very good thing.”

Not everyone agrees, of course. But the expansion’s supporters maintain that the increased opportunities will shine a spotlight on deserving films that often are shunted off to their own “smaller” categories.

“For animated movies, foreign-language films and documentaries, this is a chance to sit at the grown-ups’ table,” says one Academy member. “You’re going to see a lot of fine films get more recognition. I can’t see how that’s a bad thing.”

“I think there’s a lot of wishful thinking out there because we don’t know how this is going to pan out,” says film critic Leonard Maltin. “The animation people are hoping ‘Up’ will be among the 10. The foreign-language filmmakers, the doc people … same thing. That may not happen. But expanding the conversation to include more worthy movies makes the conversation more interesting, doesn’t it?”

It might also make the conversation more contentious. One veteran awards campaign consultant lauds the wider field, noting that her favorite movie from last year, Ben Stiller’s action satire “Tropic Thunder,” could have well been a contender had it been released in 2009.

“The Academy has a wide range of taste,” the campaigner notes. “You always hear about the ‘Academy’ like it’s this monolithic entity. But 6,000 people don’t act as one. I think you’re going to see a lot different and interesting choices this year.”

Sony Classics’ Bernard, though, differs when it comes to defining “different” and “interesting.”

“The Academy has a lot of integrity when it comes to voting,” Bernard says. “Evaluating a best picture, they’re looking at the acting, the editing, the cinematography. There’s a pedigree, and it’s not going to change overnight. If this opens the door for anything, it might be for the great animated movies. But I don’t see the summer blockbusters getting in.”

Is that, as Maltin puts it, part of the wishful thinking? Or does it hew to voters’ recent track record of nominating little-seen, challenging fare at the expense of popular mainstream movies? The prevalent sentiment among numerous supporters of the expanded best picture field is that Academy members need to go their own way and not let outside factors (i.e., consideration of television ratings) seep into their deliberations.

“A certain segment of the moviegoing public really pays attention to what gets nominated for best picture,” says an Academy member actor. “If you put a movie like ‘Doubt’ or ‘Revolutionary Road’ in the best picture category last year, their audience might have doubled.”

And that kind of bottom line might be the bottom line when it comes to support for what we can now call The Ten.

“Now I might be able to put my daughter through college,” one veteran Oscar campaigner jokes, referring to the firm’s newly expanded client list. “Or at least I can afford to pay for her room and board.”

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