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How Much Has Changed Since Oscar Expanded Best Picture Nominations?

It has been nearly a decade since the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences expanded the number of nominations for best picture from five to a possible 10 films, in a move meant to inject more blockbusters into the Oscar mix and generate more excitement around the telecast. Whatever the intentions, the experiment in populism has yielded mixed results.

Popcorn adventures like “Avatar,” “Inception,” and “Toy Story 3” have been nominated for best picture, but the vast majority of films in the category are smaller dramas and indie fare. This year, no big studio blockbusters made the cut.

“The more happy meals and candy and cereal boxes that your film is plastered across, the less chance you have of being taken seriously at the end of the year,” notes Jeff Bock, analyst with Exhibitor Relations.

That bias was exactly what the category’s expansion was supposed to address. After 2008’s “The Dark Knight” failed to get a nomination, there were concerns that Academy members had become too esoteric in their tastes. There was also a hope that if superhero films and animated hits were recognized, the Oscars telecast would see ratings gains, as it did in 1998, hitting
record highs as “Titanic” swept the awards. It helped that “Titanic” was the highest- grossing movie in history at that time.

“The more people in the audience that have seen the movies in the mix, the more people that watch the telecast,” explains Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at ComScore.

Ratings haven’t improved dramatically since the category’s overhaul. Just 34.4 million people tuned in for last year’s telecast to watch “Spotlight” crowned the big winner, the lowest number in eight years.

If Dergarabedian is correct that viewership hinges on the popularity of the films in contention, then don’t look for the ratings to surge for this year’s Oscars. Many of the contenders for best picture are likely to draw a blank from viewers. Just two of the nine films nominated, “Hidden Figures” and “La La Land,” have topped $100 million at the domestic box office. The others are critical favorites like “Moonlight,” “Manchester by the Sea,” and “Hell or High Water” that tackle tough topics — sexuality, personal tragedy, and economic privation — and have limited popular appeal. Many of those films were made with small budgets and will be profitable, but with an average gross of $66.7 million, they represent the second- lowest mean since the category’s expansion.

It’s true that since the Academy allowed more films into the best picture race, the average gross of the nominated films has expanded. That’s partially because of rising ticket sales, but it’s also due to the selection of some popular films. In 2008, the year “The Dark Knight” was snubbed, the average gross of the five nominees was $70 million. There’s only been one year since when the main awards contenders have averaged less — 2011, when just one nominee, “The Help,” grossed north of $100 million.

Undeniably, the greater number of contenders has allowed films like “Up” and “The Martian” to shoulder into the Oscar race, but many high-grossing nominees would have probably gotten an invitation even if the category had remained reserved for five films. “Gravity,” “Avatar,” and “Mad Max: Fury Road,” three of the higher-grossing movies that have been nominated for best picture, also earned nods for best director; this indicates that they likely would have made the cut even if the barrier to entry hadn’t been lowered.

Nor has the expansion solved the superhero problem. It turns out that the snub of “The Dark Knight” wasn’t an anomaly: No comic-book movie has made the grade. That’s not a surprise in the case of debacles like “Suicide Squad” or “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” but there have been plenty of movies about costumed heroes that have earned euphoric reviews. Take “Deadpool,” which received raves for its irreverence, kinetic editing, and fourth-wall- shattering protagonist. Despite picking up Golden Globe nods for best musical or comedy and for star Ryan Reynolds, Oscar voters gave the film the cold shoulder.

“Even with the acclaim, ‘Deadpool’ wasn’t able to breach that wall and get the Holy Grail,” says Bock. “It seems like there’s a separate playing field for comic-book movies. Oscar voters see it as a different kind of moviemaking.”

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