Are the Oscars Just a Test of Commercial Success?

The expanded "Best Picture"

| Orawan Gardner

Five years after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences upped the number of Best Picture nominees from five to as many as 10, the benefit of the change is unclear. After “The Dark Knight” was snubbed in 2009, there was such a backlash that the academy decided to increase the number of nominees, supposedly so that a more diverse array of critical and popular successes could stand a chance at the top honor. This year, there are nine nominees for Best Picture. Recently, both Grantland and The Dissolve ran compelling pieces arguing that the five-year-old rule change has not lived up to the Academy’s stated intentions.

Since the change, fewer films have been represented across all categories. In the eight major categories–Best Picture, Best Director, Best Leading/Supporting Actor/Actress, Best Original/Adapted Screenplay–there are 45 potential nominees in total. These 45 nominees could be from as many 45 different films, representing the widest spread, or as few as five films (the minimum number of nominees in the major categories), representing the narrowest. Before the change, the average number of films represented had been around 18. This year, only 12 films are represented. If you don’t get a nomination for Best Picture, your chances at another major award are very slim.

This narrowing of the playing field dilutes the prestige of the awards, and it tilts the balance even more sharply towards commercialism. I said last year that the Oscars are essentially a big advertisement, and I’ll say the same this year. Because it’s true. Whether or not it worked, the academy’s intention was to include more films to stay relevant to the average movie-going public. The academy members tend to be old and white and male, so maybe that’s partly a good thing. On the other hand, why is being relevant important? What would happen if the academy nominated and gave awards to a bunch of art-house films no one had ever seen or heard of before? No one would watch the awards, that’s what.

If no one watches the awards or cares what the results are, they have very little value. If the academy can keep the awards relevant by including films everyone will recognize, on the other hand, it makes money from the awards show itself, which is a prime advertising event; it makes money from the movies, which enjoy a direct boost in revenue; and it directly and indirectly makes money for cast and crew members, who go on to get hired for more money on more prestige productions… It’s one big Ouroborus.

Orawan Gardner

Orawan was formerly a project associate who produced written and visual content for Orawan was an AmeriCorps VISTA member and studied film at Vassar College, where she received her B.A.

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