The Academy still gets it wrong sometimes.
This year’s Oscar nominees were surprisingly strong. There was diversity in the Best Director category, as well as historic nominations for Mudbound cinematographer Rachel Morrison and Strong Island director Yance Ford. But there’s one area where the Academy continues to slip up: the number of Best Picture nominees.
It was after The Dark Knight, one of 2008’s most lauded films, missed out on a Best Picture nomination that the move was made to increase the number of nominees from five (as it had been since 1945) to 10. This was seen as an attempt to make the Oscars more relevant for general moviegoers, by embracing standout blockbusters and genre films alongside the independent dramas that have traditionally dominated the ceremony.
The next two years featured a stacked line-up of 10 contenders, which allowed for nominations for the likes of District 9, Up and Inception. But, in 2011, the rules were altered once again to allow a flexible number of nominees (anywhere between five and 10). Since then, we’re yet to have a full set.
The math is somewhat convoluted, but those extra slots are a missed opportunity. With every 8 or 9 nominees year, the Academy isn’t just missing the chance to recognize blockbusters; they’re missing the chance to put a spotlight on smaller, more diverse films.
If it’s that the Academy worry that a lesser film might slip into the mix and sully the Oscars brand, there are always films recognized as exceptional in other categories that don’t make the cut for Best Picture. This year, the likes of Mudbound, I, Tonya, The Big Sick or even something like Logan or Blade Runner 2049 all received (multiple) nods in other categories, but missed out on the biggest nomination of all. Mudbound received four nominations so it would seem logical that it wouldn’t be out of place on the Best Picture ballot.
The 10th spot this year could have gone to any number of deserving films. Looking beyond the usual suspects (the original purpose of the expansion): what about Wonder Woman, a barnstorming hit with both audiences and critics that didn’t pick up a single nomination. And, no, Patty Jenkins’s film may not be the artistic equal of The Dark Knight, but say it was the number 10 pick — the Best Picture nomination would have been the perfect opportunity to recognize it’s cultural significance.
The argument that its pointless nominating films that don’t have a chance of winning fall flat. Would you discount the Cleveland Browns from the NFL just because they don’t have a hope in hell of winning the Super Bowl? And, anyway, 2017 has been one of the most open Best Picture races in quite some time. The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri lead the pack, but I wouldn’t discount Get Out just yet, or even Lady Bird.
As for the arbitrary 10 — couldn’t it be more: 15? 20? — that round number works because so much of film list culture is 10-centric (box office top 10, personal top 10 films of the year, etc.). If anything, I’d argue that the flexible number makes Hollywood look weak. As if the industry couldn’t find ten great to standout films in a year. A strict ten projects the idea that there were loads of great movies and the list had to be cut down. For an industry so eager to pat itself on the back, it seems strange that they’d chose to miss out on the perceived strength of having confidence in a full roster.
If the Academy wants to be more inclusive, then making use of all 10 Best Picture nominee slots would be an easy way to open up the conversation. Who knows what film would have occupied the 10th place this year, but more voices are always preferable to fewer.