Oct. 31, 2009 -- At the ripe old age of 82, Oscar could do with a face-lift now and then. But Jane Campion, among other voters, has reservations about the latest makeover of Hollywood's most coveted prize.
The New Zealand-born filmmaker, one of only three female directors ever nominated for an Academy Award, can't comprehend why the best-picture list of nominees was expanded from five to 10 slots for the first time since 1943, when Casablanca took home the statuette.
"I've heard it's because of the major studios," says the screenplay winner for 1993's The Piano, whose hopes this year are pinned on her period romance Bright Star. "None of their movies are being chosen."
Campion isn't the only one of the 6,000 or so academy members who was taken aback when the switch was unveiled in June.
"I think it dilutes the exclusivity of it," says Willem Dafoe, a two-time acting nominee. "You know, some years there might not be that many movies that deserve it. I just worry it lowers the bar a little bit."
Or, as Frost/Nixon actor Michael Sheen, who joined the academy in 2007, puts it: "The more films you have, the less special it becomes."
It's all an experiment, assures Tom Sherak, newly appointed president of the 6,000-member Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The decision was made by the 43 members of the board of governors.
The supersizing of the best-picture category was suggested during a postmortem with Bill Condon and Laurence Mark, producers of this year's ceremony, which boosted viewership from the previous year by 13%.
Still, considering the 2008 edition – when No Country for Old Men claimed the best-picture trophy – was the least-watched show ever, the increase was only a mild improvement. Which is why, to continue to draw more eyes, the academy would like Oscar to find room for more popcorn-type films in its diet.
"All the critics' 10-best lists have 10 films," Sherak says, explaining the logic behind the move for the March 7 ceremony. "And there have been 10 nominees in the past. Maybe it would create more interest and allow us to have more fun. Maybe a comedy or a blockbuster would be nominated. The board felt it was an idea that should be tried."
Making it easier for films such as last year's superhero smash The Dark Knight to be recognized doesn't sit well with Campion.
"It's not a popularity contest," she says. "That is box office. We have that. The Oscars should be something else. Whose decision was it? Why didn't we vote on it? Let it be a challenge for these studios rather than just expect to see Batman on the list."
To some, it feels like cheating
And what happens if, instead of a more eclectic mix of contenders, the academy simply chooses 10 small films? "Then 10 small films will be nominated," he says. "The bottom line is, we want to find ways of doing things that people are interested in. We want to do what is good for the show. If it doesn't work, we'll change it."
One voter who enthusiastically supports the five extra finalists is John Lasseter, the big cheese of animation at Pixar and Disney as well as the secretary of the board of governors. Considering the only animated feature to ever make the best-picture cut was 1991's Beauty and the Beast, he's delighted that movies like Pixar's summer hit Up– which earned ecstatic reviews – will have an easier chance of sneaking in.
"I don't think it diminishes anything," he says. "There are an awful lot of more commercial films that have not been nominated that should have been. Now there's a whole generation of moviegoers who don't relate as much to the Oscars, since the movies that they love so much are not represented. This will open the door."
It does rankle some that the rules had to be bent before animated features as well as documentaries and foreign-language films, which all have separate best-picture categories, could be given a fairer chance at the biggest honor.
Says Peter Schneider, the former head of Disney feature animation who was in charge when Beauty was in the running: "It won't mean as much. Getting in is not as special as when it was just five. It's like cheating."
Who's not happy
At least the added contenders have given those pundits who cover the Oscars something to chew over in a year when no clear front-runner has stepped forward. A favorite topic: the pitfalls of the new procedure.
And the nominees for favorite gripes are ...
•Redefining first place. In the past, voters simply picked one of the five nominees as best picture. Now, with 10 choices, sticking with that method could result in a winner with only 11% of the votes.
Instead, the academy has reverted to a preferential system where voters rank the nominees from 1 to 10. If the title on top does not have at least 51% of the vote, then second and even third choices on ballots could be included in the selection.
Sounds fair, except suddenly the night's winner may not have the most No. 1 votes.
"The new procedure is bad," says Damien Bona, academy expert and co-author of Inside Oscar. "It means the least-offensive movie will make it, the one that everyone sort of likes but no one is passionate about."
For instance, he says, "In 1969, Z and Midnight Cowboy (the winner) represented the cutting edge, while Anne of the Thousand Days and Hello, Dolly! were the traditional choices. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid would have been No. 3 for everyone and would probably have won."
•Box office trumps quality. When the best-picture changes were announced, the Oscar year of 1939 – often considered Hollywood's best – was invoked as an example of what could happen with 10 nominees. Gone With the Wind, the box-office champ of all time when adjusted for inflation, was the victor. But also in the race was an abundance of enduring classics such as The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Stagecoach.
However, that was when the most popular films of the year often were among the best.
Already, a shortage of worthy selections is being cited as a problem this year by voters who prefer not to be quoted. Even with five slots, they might only fill in two or three titles on the ballot, leaving the rest blank.
"A lot more best-picture movies were made back then than now," says longtime Oscar watcher Steve Pond, who writes the online column The Odds for The Wrap. "The academy did what it could to expand the slate of films, but it is at the mercy of what is being released this year."
•The unseen honorees. More nominees mean a greater chunk of the telecast will be devoted to the best-picture category. Something has to give. That something will be the honorary Oscars, which, as Bona notes, "often provide the emotional highlights of the evening."
Instead, an untelevised though taped ceremony in Hollywood on Nov. 14 will be held for this year's recipients: actress Lauren Bacall, B-movie titan Roger Corman, cinematographer Gordon Willis and executive/producer John Calley, who will receive the Irving G. Thalberg award.
To be denied watching the legendary Bacall on live TV as she finally gets an Oscar at age 85 or clips of Willis' splendid work with Woody Allen and all of The Godfather films won't please everyone. "It dissipates the importance of the award," Bona says.
•Statue-swapping fatigue. Some voters suggest the real problem isn't the ceremony or the nominees. It's the fact that there are so many other awards shows that air before the Oscars, including the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild, the American Film Institute and the Broadcast Film Critics Association.
Since they feature a similar slate of contenders, they undercut the importance of what should be Hollywood's ultimate evening to shine.
As 15-time nominee and two-time winner Meryl Streep says, "The Oscars should be Jan. 2. By the time we get to the Oscars, these same winners have trudged up on stage multiple times.
"The best acting all year is when they act surprised."