A version of this story first appeared in the Actors/Directors/Screenwriters issue of TheWrap’s Oscars magazine.
Will this be a thin year in the Best Picture race? In some ways, it looks as if it might. We know the usual suspects– “Roma” and “A Star Is Born,” “Green Book” and “First Man” and “If Beale Street Could Talk,” “Black Panther” and “BlacKkKlansman,” “The Favourite” and a few others — but there’s precious little on that list that doesn’t have some kind of vulnerability, and even less off that list that seems positioned to grab a spot.
And yet I keep thinking of a different kind of Oscars race, one in which Pawel Pawlikowski’s luminous “Cold War” has a real chance, along with the Coen brothers’ brilliantly dark and wickedly funny “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” and Paul Greengrass’ harrowing but triumphant “22 July,” and Jason Reitman’s smart and dense “The Front Runner.”
Why couldn’t “Incredibles 2” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” get into the Best Picture race the way animated predecessors like “Up” and “Toy Story 3” did? And if Morgan Neville’s loving Mr. Rogers documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” prompted more tears than just about any other 2018 film, if Bing Liu’s wrenching “Minding the Gap” would win the L.A. Film Critics’ award for editing, why shouldn’t they be real contenders outside the doc category as well?
You probably have your own list of films that ought to be in the running — but if you’re a voter, you probably won’t write them down on your ballot for fear that you’ll be wasting your vote. (A few of the films I mentioned were on my Critics’ Choice Awards ballot — and if I was throwing my votes away, so be it.)
But it wasn’t too long ago — 2010, in fact — when Oscars voters might have felt comfortable adding long shots to their Best Picture ballot, and maybe even helping one or two of them get nominated.
That’s because in 2009 and 2010, the Academy had a Best Picture category that included a flat 10 films, and a Best Picture ballot that included 10 lines on which voters could list their choices. Sure, the preferential system of vote counting in the nomination round meant that lower choices seldom came into play — but the lines were there, and I have to think that it encouraged Academy voters to think expansively, not narrowly.
Those two years saw a pair of Pixar films land Best Picture nominations, along with dark horses like “District 9” and “Winter’s Bone” and “A Serious Man.” And then the Academy decided to tinker with the process so as not to dilute the value of a Best Picture nomination, instituting a system that produced a variable number of nominations — nine nominees five times, eight nominees twice.
And crucially, with that change came a shrinking of the ballot, as Academy members went back to having five slots to fill on their ballots, not 10. Maybe the change didn’t alter what was nominated too dramatically, but it necessarily narrowed voters’ focus. And to what end? To keep out “The Florida Project” or “Carol” or “Straight Outta Compton”?
As the Academy now toys with the idea of introducing an Oscar devoted just to “popular” films and as it invites a record number of new members each year, it’s time to recognize that inclusion in the Best Picture category is not a bad thing. If five nominees isn’t enough, there is no longer any real justification for not going to 10 — and that means there’s no justification for not giving voters a full 10 slots on their ballots, whether they want to fill them all or not.
Obviously, the Board of Governors isn’t going to vote to change the rules in time for this year’s Oscars. But in the aftermath of the this year’s show, when the board sits down to consider rule changes for next year and beyond, it’s worth recognizing that the suspense that was supposed to be generated by not knowing whether there will be eight or nine nominees is pretty much nonexistent, and brings with it a real downside.
Enough with the silliness of variable nominees, AMPAS. You’ve done it for seven years, it hasn’t saved the Academy from big embarrassments and its very existence narrows the thinking of people who ought to be embracing all that filmmakers have to offer.
Give voters a reason and a way to think beyond the usual suspects, please.
To read more from TheWrap’s Actors/Directors/Screenwriters issue, click here.