Studios wary of Oscar's new best-picture rule

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - If ever there were a time that the town needed a jolt of adrenaline, Wednesday was it -- but from, of all places, the staid, mostly predictable Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences?

An Oscar statuette is displayed at the "Meet the Oscars, Chicago" event February 13, 2009. REUTERS/John Gress

What everyone thought would be another sleepy announcement about an arcane rule change in the documentary or foreign language category turned into the headline of the day -- opening up the Oscar race to 10 best picture nominees.

The rationale is not that hard to fathom: The awards telecast has been dwindling in the ratings for a decade; at the same time, folks have been carping about the tilt of the noms -- too arty, too downbeat, too too -- or the exclusion of comedies or the relegation of animation to its own category. Some had even hazarded aloud that, of all things, the Golden Globes were the guys with the right idea, even if their 10 best pic noms are bifurcated by genre.

So with one masterstroke, all the goal posts have been shifted.

Most folks were gobsmacked by the news, with many -- think all those filmmakers who believe their films have been snubbed -- applauding the stratagem. As for wannabe Oscar consultants, now is the time to hang out that shingle.

“I think (Academy president) Sid Ganis has a great marketing mind and that this is a brilliant move,” media consultant Michael Levine said. “After all, the biggest sin these days is irrelevance, and whether the expansion ultimately resonates with the public or not, the move will get a lot of attention. Sometimes you just have to do something bold to re-energize a classic brand.”

But from a different perspective, longtime Oscar maven Tony Angellotti, who now consults for Universal and Disney Animation, thinks the move could well dilute “both the quality and the impact of the award. I would imagine the studios are grieving over this. They’ll have to spend more money and not likely see a return -- just what they don’t need in a recession.”

In fact, one studio executive compared the Academy bombshell to getting doused with a bucket of cold water. He confided that he has enough trouble every awards season figuring out whom they have to satisfy with an Oscar campaign and which talent they can safely neglect or do less for.

“Were we behind this move by the Academy? No way,” one top studio executive said. “We’re going to have to spend more money in marketing campaigns for one or more unlikely winner, and mostly there’s very little financial upside even when we do win. All of this takes enormous time and energy, and now it’s extra time and energy.”

Another studio executive shook his head in dismay. “This likely means more filmmakers will want to see their movies open late in the year so they can still be in release during the crucial period between nominations (February 2) and the actual telecast (March 7). It’s simply going to clog up the distribution pipeline or mean we have to consider re-releasing one title or another. Don’t even mention what it might do to DVD campaigns.”

The studio naysayers were reluctant to speak for the record, however, as they know that the town has become obsessed with and obsessive about awards. They do not want to appear churlish.

The most obvious contingent of happy faces might very well be the talent behind, say, “Up.” Almost certainly a shoo-in in the still-to-remain animation category, the Disney/Pixar hit now stands a much better chance of getting into the top 10 noms as well. So too -- given what’s out there so far this year -- is a film like “Public Enemies,” Michael Mann’s upcoming period actioner about John Dillinger, which is well crafted and acted, neither too arty nor too populist.

Other pictures that could benefit are the little gems that have “a small but passionate fan base,” as another consultant put it, a la “Once” or “The Visitor” or more ambitious movies that got overlooked because they came out at the wrong moment or whatever -- think “Revolutionary Road.”

Whatever the consensus around town about the Academy’s bias, the organization has never really turned its back on well-made commercial movies; it just doesn’t have much of a feel or appreciation for warmed-over popcorn -- meaning sequels and other material derived from nonliterary sources like, you guessed it, those proliferating comic-book adaptations.

That’s why the sixth (or whatever it was) iteration of Batman, meaning “The Dark Knight,” did not make it into last year’s best picture list, not because the Academy was appalled by how much money the film made.

The only problem with widening the net is that this is no longer the 1930s or ‘40s, when the Academy last fielded 10 or so best picture noms each year. Back then, it had an overabundance of what were grown-up yet popular titles -- ranging from “It Happened One Night” and “Mutiny on the Bounty” early on to “You Can’t Take It with You” and “Casablanca,” the last movie, in 1943, to wrest the Oscar from nine other contenders. Nowadays, most Hollywood movies aren’t really made for grown-ups.

The big question in 2010: Will we see more movies in contention like “The Reader,” which practically no one saw but whose literary pedigree was unassailable, or more documentaries, like, say, “An Inconvenient Truth,” which definitely fits the bill as serious fare. Or will the new, more expansive Academy relax its criteria and put a comedy like “Borat” or a chick flick like “Notting Hill” or a feel-good musical like “Mamma Mia!” into the hat?

And pray tell, when will those 5,000-odd Academy members find the time to watch all those screeners, now doubled in number, that hit their mailboxes the week before Christmas?

“OK, it’s certainly going to create more heat, and yes, more headaches,” another awards consultant said. “It’s also going to be, or seem like, a much longer award season, and we’re all going to have to think outside the box. But my imagination is already running wild as to what we can do with this.”