Expanded best picture race spreads the wealth

Main story | Nominees list | Reactions | Scorecard | Gallery | Oscar observations | Did 10 noms add up? | Oscar push for pics | Award Central

Was the expansion of the best picture race a success?

In the noms announced Tuesday, there was certainly more diversity than usual — the 10 films, from 10 different distributors, represent a nice mix of B.O. hits and specialty fare.

While the contenders didn’t run the gamut, various Academy Award veterans and contenders gave a thumbs-up to the expansion, with the caveat that it will take several years to determine if this year’s wide range will be repeated.

Focus Features’ James Schamus was obviously enthused about the nomination of the company’s “A Serious Man” as best pic, in addition to the wider canvas, laughing about the curious turn of a specialty division chief touting the inclusion of more mainstream studio fare.”I’m all for the 10: It’s fun,” he said. “It’s exciting seeing that range of films, which is varied and dynamic. Oscars are embracing the whole spectrum of the industry, from specialty divisions to the major studio fare. I think it’s great.”

Sandra Bullock, who earned one of the two bids for Warner’s “The Blind Side,” said, “I am such an advocate of this 10 picture list and am so glad they are doing it. So many films, from small to big that never get the opportunity to be seen by the public or acknowledged for what they have done, are now given that chance. It’s long overdue that this change was made.”

Nominations for the 82nd annual Academy Awards got out the populist vote. In addition to the sort of intimate, small-scale films that have dominated the best picture race of late, there are two sci-fi pics, a sports-themed family drama, an animated feature and topical titles (films addressing the economy and the Iraq war).

You’d have to go back to 2003′s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” to find a genuine crowd-pleasing high-grosser competing for the top prize. The lineups in the past five years were dominated by small, dark and handsome films like “There Will Be Blood,” “No Country for Old Men,” “Frost/Nixon” and “The Reader.”

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences announced the expansion last June, the org’s honchos said they hoped it would open Oscar’s doors to all genres. While the list is more varied than usual, this year’s tally did not include, for example, a documentary, foreign-lingo pic, flat-out comedy or musical.

Even so, there were clues that Oscar voters were thinking outside the box, spreading the wealth wide and including surprises in nearly every category, including Maggie Gyllenhaal (“Crazy Heart”), adapted screenplay for “In the Loop” and a toon bid for “The Secret of Kells.”

As always, there were surprise omissions, including a shutout for “The Hangover,” Julianne Moore and Tom Ford (“A Single Man”), actor Michael Stuhlbarg (“A Serious Man”), the screenplay for “500 Days of Summer” and the relatively light showing for Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” and Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones.”

And there were films that were admired by critics but never gained much traction during kudos season, including “This Is It!,” “The Road,” “The Informant!,” “Public Enemies” and “Where the Wild Things Are,” and ones that were highly anticipated but never caught fire with auds or critics, such as “Amelia” and “The Soloist.” Other pics once touted as 2009 contenders were moved into 2010, including “Shutter Island,” “The Green Zone” and “The Tree of Life.”

Another key question: Did the Academy Award noms reflect the year accurately? Yes and no.

For the film biz, 2009 was a year of major upheaval: Studios released films with production budgets that ranged from record lows ($16,000 for “Paranormal Activity”) to major highs (an estimated $280 million for “Avatar”). Three of the six major studios saw senior executive shuffles, while new companies emerged as awards contenders (Apparition, the newish Summit, Oscilloscope Laboratories) and other smaller companies like Miramax retreated.

And studio execs got a jolt (albeit a pleasant one) when audiences in 2009 created so many surprise hits (“Taken,” “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” “The Proposal,” “The Ugly Truth,” “District 9,” “Paranormal Activity,” “The Blind Side”) and pics that performed way bigger than expected (“New Moon,” “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” and “Avatar”).

There were no major jolts with Oscar: no best-pic noms for “G.I. Joe” or “G-Force,” no shutouts of major frontrunners.

But there were some notable developments that reflected the changing business, such as a strong presence of 3D films, as well as Oscar’s first nom for a day-and-date VOD/theatrical release: the adapted screenplay bid for IFC Films’ “In the Loop.”

Traditionally, there is little correlation between Oscar recognition and box office success, and 2009 was no exception, despite the presence of B.O. hits in Oscar’s inner circle.

The top 10 grossers worldwide for calendar 2009 were, in order, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” “Avatar,” “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs,” “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” “2012,” “Up,” “New Moon,” “Angels and Demons,” “The Hangover” and “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian.” They collectively earned more than $7 billion during the calendar year, but aside from “Avatar” and “Up,” only two nominations: One each for “Harry Potter” and “Transformers.”

Conversely, modest box office is no impediment to a film’s Oscar chances. (With the screenings and screeners, a lot of awards voters don’t need to pay to see a film, after all). One of this year’s success stories is Oscilloscope’s “The Messenger,” which nabbed two key noms (supporting actor and screenplay), despite a modest box office of $770,000. And Sony Pictures Classics’ “The Last Station” and “The White Ribbon” combined earned less than “The Messenger” but got two noms each: for actress and supporting actor, and foreign-language film and cinematography, respectively.

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more