Oscar expansion plan: Work in progress

'10 and '11 will be true tests on 10 best-pic move

After the awards season climaxes at the March 7 Oscars, there will be the inevitable post-mortems about who won (and why), and what they wore (and why). But the key question is whether the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences was successful with its expansion to 10 best picture nominees.

This year’s contenders certainly passed the popularity test. But the real test will come in the next few years.

Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences officials will never admit it out loud, but many hoped the expansion would provide more crowdpleasers for TV audiences to root for. While last year’s quintet of small, dark and handsome films had earned $227 million at the time of noms (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “Revolutionary Road,” “The Reader,” etc.), this year’s crop included five pics that had collectively earned more than 15 times that amount: a whopping $3.5 billion for “Avatar,” “Up,” “Inglourious Basterds,” “The Blind Side” and “District 9.”

So large numbers of TV viewers have not only heard of these films, they have actually seen some of them.

That populist goal was met. But it’s possible some of those big earners would have been contenders even with only five nominees.

TV ratings will likely be terrific, thanks to the pics on display and because “special event” TV seems to be on the upswing. The Golden Globes and Grammys saw much-improved numbers, while the Super Bowl hit an all-time record. (On the other hand, the Winter Olympics trailed “American Idol” twice, but maybe “Idol” counts as a special event.)

So, again, things are looking good for Oscar, but it will be hard to attribute improved ratings solely to the 10-pic plan.

The Acad’s strategy has been much debated since the June announcement, and both fans and opponents got ammunition to back up their arguments.

On the surface, it seems to be the year of bigger, more audience-friendly pictures, the triumph of the Hollywood majors over the artsy-fartsy indies. But naysayers had predicted 10 noms would mean just more of the same and, in a way, it is more of the same, as indies again outpowered studios.

Nominations for the 82nd annual Academy Awards were led by Sony Pictures Classics and the Weinstein Co., with 13 each. Summit received nine. The Independent Film & TV Alliance points out that indies scored 79 noms, compared to 42 for the majors.

No matter which film wins, some kudos pundits will claim that the victory was due to the preferential voting system. And who’s to say they’re wrong? When Oscar voters had only five films in contention, they entered their solo favorite on the final ballot. Now the ballot has 10 blank lines, and voters list all 10 in order of preference. PricewaterhouseCoopers mavens count all the first-place choices and if no pic earned 51% of the votes, they go to the second choice, then maybe the third choice, until one film has earned 51%.

So nobody knows if second-place choices will be irrelevant — or crucial. Even the PricewaterhouseCoopers experts can’t predict. (And once they find out, they won’t tell us.)

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