As the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gears up for another Oscar season — a make-or-break affair if it’s to succeed in luring viewers back to ABC’s annual telecast that millions simply ignored in April — it’s employing one tactic that smacks of deja vu. This season, the Academy once again will nominate 10 films for its best picture prize.
While the number of best picture nominees fluctuated from year to year during the Academy’s early days, from 1944 through 2008, the standard was set: The category was restricted to just five films. But following an outcry when popular and critical hits like The Dark Knight and the animated Wall-E failed to make the cut in 2008, the Academy decided to open up the category to 10 hopefuls. “We will be casting our net wide,” the Academy’s then-president Sidney Ganis said, acknowledging the hope that doing so also could draw in a wider audience to the show. And that year’s nominees lived up to that promise: The lineup included the sci-fi movies Avatar (the highest-grossing movie of all time) and District 9, the animated Up and mainstream entertainment like Inglourious Basterds, The Blind Side and Up in the Air alongside smaller pictures like Precious, An Education, A Serious Man and the eventual winner, The Hurt Locker. More than 41 million viewers tuned in, up from 36 million the previous year.
Still, a sizable faction in the Academy resisted the change, grumbling that the wider field diluted the honor of a best picture nom, and, just two years later, the Academy fiddled with the formula again so that the number of best picture nominees could fluctuate anywhere from five to 10. Ostensibly, the Academy argued, the move would introduce “a new element of surprise” when the nominees were announced.
But in the 10 years that the rule has been in place — with either eight or nine nominees put forward each year — instead of ratcheting up suspense, it’s mostly led to speculation about exactly which films were denied that ninth or 10th spot. During the same period, the Producers Guild of America, which singles out 10 pictures annually for its top film award, has embraced a whole range of movies the Academy has given short shrift. They’ve included big hits like Deadpool, Wonder Woman, Crazy Rich Asians and Knives Out as well as Black dramas like Straight Outta Compton, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and One Night in Miami — all titles that failed to earn an Oscar nom for best picture.
And so, back to the drawing board. In July 2020, the Academy announced it would return to a guaranteed 10 best picture nominees in 2021. The announcement — folded into a long list of new inclusion initiatives — didn’t cause much of a stir. Even before the Oscar show ratings hit an all-time-low of 10.4 million viewers in April, the writing was on the wall. The Oscars had been losing their cultural cachet and relevance and anything that might reverse the trend had to be considered.
But returning to 10 isn’t necessarily going to solve that problem. This year, even with 10 slots to fill, it’s unlikely the Oscars will duplicate that varied 2009 lineup.
Consider: Although the five-to-10 era saw a handful of sci-fi and superhero movies nominated — most notably Black Panther but also films like Gravity and Arrival — this year’s possibilities appear more problematic. Those three films had Rotten Tomatoes ratings of 96, 96 and 94, respectively. But while it has some ardent fans, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune has registered an 83, while Oscar winner Chloé Zhao’s Eternals currently stands at 60.
And while both of the two recent 10-best years included an animated entry, that’s a tough sell this year. Amid the lingering COVID-19 restrictions, Pixar’s Luca went direct to Disney+, while Sony sold its The Mitchells vs. the Machines to Netflix, so, given just token theatrical releases, neither had the cultural impact a full release provides. Flee, Denmark’s submission for best international feature, also is a contender for best animated feature and best documentary feature, but that could result in category confusion, making an additional best pic bid a reach.
Plus, the Academy has changed, growing far beyond 2009’s clubby organization of about 6,000 members. Having invited lots of international filmmakers into its fold — more than 9,000 total voting numbers — it could well look beyond typical Hollywood product. That in turn could boost the chances for foreign-language films like Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers and Asghar Farhadi’s A Hero being elevated to the best picture circle. Hell, it might even make the Cannes Palme d’Or winner, Titane — an aggressively transgressive movie that’s far from traditional Oscar bait — into less of a long shot.
So if the name of the game is to win back Oscar viewers with a grab bag of seductively familiar movies, when the nominations are announced in February, 10 may not prove to be a magic number after all.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.