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Academy’s Best-Pic Change: A Smart Way to Fix Something That Wasn’t Broken

Analysis: By instituting a variable number of Best-Picture nominees, AMPAS takes a savvy but almost unprecedented step in Oscar’s marquee category

The Academy's Board of Governors went from "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," to "if it ain't broke, make it better anyway."

And in doing so, they created a new, vitally important magic number for Oscar hopefuls: 250, the approximate number of first-place votes necessary to have a shot at a Best Picture nomination.

Also Read: Academy Shakes Up Best Picture Category: Now It's 5 to 10 Nominees

Oscar ballotBy eliminating the automatic slate of 10 Best-Picture nominees in favor of a rule that will produce anywhere between five and 10 contenders, the board tinkered with a two-year-old rule that for the most part had been well-received within the Academy. It was also one that clearly resulted in nominations for crowd- and critic-pleasing movies that likely would have been left out otherwise.

Among the probable beneficiaries: the commercial hits "Up," "District 9" and "The Blind Side," and the critically-acclaimed "An Education," "Winter's Bone" and "The Kids Are All Right."

The Academy board acted on a proposal by outgoing executive director Bruce Davis, whose suggestion answered the vocal minority who felt that the expanded slate devalued the importance of an Oscar nomination.

The new rule: the Best Picture category will have anywhere between five and 10 nominees — but in filling slots six through 10, only films listed first on at least 5 percent of the nominating ballots are eligible.

The change was made after only two years of the 10-picture slate, which most thought would get at least a three-year tryout.

According to one governor in attendance, the change had not been on the agenda prior to the meeting (although Davis said it was known to members of a couple of committees). The idea took many board members by surprise and prompted a lengthy discussion; according to the governor, it passed with more support than the original move to 10 nominees had received. 

"It was kind of surprising how enthusiastically it was embraced by the board," Davis told TheWrap on Wednesday. "I think some of the board had been worried about the arbitrariness of the 10, but mostly it seemed like fun to bring in that element of surprise."

The idea, said Davis, came out of research that PricewaterhouseCoopers had done about the past decade of Oscar voting. (The research did not include the last two years, when the field of 10 was in effect.) The accounting firm gave the Academy a breakdown of each year, identifying films by numbers rather than names, and mixing up the years so Academy officials couldn't connect the dots between the numbers and specific nominees.

The research, Davis said, showed that "most years, there were a couple of pictures in the top 10 that hadn't really been heartily endorsed by the membership."

The stats, he said, differed from year to year. "When I saw the data, it was clear that one year there might be six pictures with significant support, and the next there might be eight. But we'd have a couple that would have gotten into a field of 10 even though they only had 1.5 percent of the vote."

The board, he added, didn't want to go back to five nominees. "They liked the idea of expanding our snapshot of the year in film, and the more they talked about this option, the more enthusiastic they became."

In making the change, the governors brought the process in the Oscars' marquee category closer to the way it's done in one of the most maligned categories, Best Original Song. In that category, songs that receive a minimum score are eligible and the field can range between two and five.

As an avid observer of the Oscars, I think the song process is a mess badly in need of an overhaul, and I think the move to 10 Best Picture nominees has for the most part worked, producing only a single nominee over the past two years that for my money absolutely didn't deserve to be there.

(That would be "The Blind Side.")

But I also think this new move is a smart one, a surprising but savvy change that will give films a chance to crack that coveted Best Picture slate without padding the slate just to get to 10.

The move is not completely unprecedented. Along with Best Original Song, a small number of other categories have used systems in which a minimum score is needed to qualify for a nomination.

But it is rare for the Academy to conduct an experiment that definitely shakes things up in the category for which the Oscars are most remembered.  

One key in the AMPAS press release announcing the change was the revelation that if this rule had been in effect from 2001 to 2008, it would have resulted in years of five, six, seven, eight and nine nominees.

In other words: the requirement that a film be listed first on 5 percent of the total ballots to qualify would never  have produced 10 nominees during that time.

In January, I used the Academy's preferential system to tally more than 150 critics' top 10 lists in an attempt to show how the system worked. I came up with a lineup that overlapped with the Academy's nominees in seven out of the 10 nominees — but if I had used the 5 percent requirement, my field would have consisted of only six films, not 10.

Among the films that wouldn't have made the cut: "Black Swan" and "Toy Story 3." That’s not to imply that they would have been left out by the Academy, just that the 5 percent rule may spell the end of 10-picture fields, except in rare circumstances.

In that case, it would have required eight first-place votes to stay in the running for a nomination under the new rules. In the field of close to 6,000 Academy voters, if we assume that most of them cast nominating ballots, that translates to a new magic number of about 250.

Note: according to Davis, the 5-percent rule will kick in after PwC tabulators will redistribute any ballots that are put in play by the surplus rule, and then redistribute the ballots of all films that received less than 1 percent of the total vote.

The bottom line: To be eligible, a film will need about 250 voters to either put it at the top of their ballots, or put it in the No. 2 spot behind a film that receives fewer than 50 first-place votes. That's what studios, consultants and campaigners need to keep in mind: get 250 Academy members to put you up high, or you're out of luck.

"I think campaigning will be the same," said a vet of many Oscar campaigns on Wednesday morning. "I think expectations will be different. There will be more heart-to-hearts between filmmakers and studios than in the past."

Other observations:

> The job of Oscar pundit just got trickier. Predicting which 10 films would receive nominations wasn't too tough (I got all 10 right last year, nine of 10 the year before). But trying to forecast not only which films are in the running, but how many of them will get in, increases the degree of difficulty dramatically.

(On the plus side, it'll give major bragging rights to anybody who gets it right.) 

> Of the other rule changes enacted by the board on Tuesday night, the new rules in the Animated Feature category will have the biggest impact. In previous years, the animation community has played an anxious waiting game in Oscar season to see how many films qualify, hoping that the number would hit 16 and trigger a move from three to five nominees.

That only happened twice in the eight-year history of the category, which was frustrating for films like "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" and "Despicable Me," both of which might well have snuck onto a larger category.

But with new guidelines allowing four nominees if at least 13 films qualify, the field ought to be at least slightly expanded almost every year.

> The change in the Documentary Feature and Documentary Short categories will create a statistical oddity: an eligibility period that began on Sept. 1, 2010 and runs until the end of this year.

While every other category will be showcasing a calendar year's worth of films, the doc branch will be saluting a full 15 months' worth just this once, as it adjusts to a calendar-year eligibility period from a September-through-August period.

Some have interpreted this change as paving the way for an eventual move that would put the Oscar show in late January or early February — but in fact, the change makes it harder, not easier, for branch voters to consider all the qualifying films in time.

> Finally, the Academy, mindful that it has occasional leaks, seems to have hit on a new strategy for releasing big news: put it out when the Board of Governors meeting ends, rather than waiting for the morning the way they would have in the past.

The announcement that Dawn Hudson and Ric Robertson were being named CEO and COO came just before midnight after the governors met in April; this new announcement came after 11:30. (It was a shorter meeting this time.)

In both instances, burning the midnight oil meant no leaks.