Oscar 2015: Back to Five Best Picture Nominees?

The Hollywood Reporter investigates:

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) is considering a return to its former policy of having only five best picture nominees, sources say.  That number would be down from a maximum of 10 that are allowed by the current rules.

The potential move, which is supported by a significant fraction of the Academy, would be a radical shift for the 6,000-member organization and a tacit acknowledgement that its six-year-old strategy of boosting the number of best picture nominees has failed.

“They tried it, and it really didn’t do us any good,” says one high-level source. While no official proposal has been placed before the Academy’s board of governors, that could happen as soon as March 24, when the governors are next due to meet.

An Academy spokesperson declined to comment on the upcoming meeting, saying, “As we do each year, the Academy will meet in the coming months to evaluate not only the telecast, but also the awards season in its entirety.”

A large portion of the board has been pushing for the change behind the scenes, arguing that having too many best picture nominees has watered down the prestige of a nomination–without boosting the TV audience for the annual Oscars telecast.

This year’s Academy Awards broadcast on ABC was down more than 15 percent from last year’s, due to the tepid hosting by Neil Patrick Harris and other reasons.  The governors have also complained about the quality and length of the show.

The Academy’s awards committee is conducting its own review of the most recent broadcast, and it is expected to present a post-mortem at the March 24 meeting.

Those arguing in favor of reducing the nominees are likely to be countered by others who are afraid of an even further ratings erosion.  The latter group points to high-grossing films such as American Sniper and The Blind Side, which helped bring in viewers who otherwise might not have watched.  Neither film is thought likely to have been a nominee if there had been only five slots.

The most-watched Oscar telecast remains the 1998 show, during which the box office smash Titanic was named best picture.

In 2009, the Academy moved away from its long-term rule of having five nominees (though it had chosen 10 in its earlier years), following the omission of The Dark Knight from the previous year’s lineup. That film’s exclusion from the best picture nominees led many to argue in favor of throwing a bigger net that would lift ratings and also satisfy popular audiences hungry for the Academy to acknowledge films with a wider appeal.

After going up to 10 nominees, the Academy shifted direction two years later, this time mandating anything from five to 10.  Eight films were nominated this year, and nine films were nominated each of the three previous years.

But rather than add blockbusters to the mix, Academy voters have simply opted for more art-house films. All of this year’s nominees, with the exception of American Sniper, were specialty releases, including the eventual winner, Birdman, from Fox Searchlight Pictures.

An analysis of the total box office of the nominees shows a marked slide over the past six years, indicating the extent to which the current strategy has failed to bring popular films into play.

In 2010, the first year that the number of best picture nominees expanded to ten, those films, which included Avatar, brought in a total of $4.7 billion worldwide; this year, their box office tally just prior to the Oscars was a mere $999.5 million, according to Rentrak.

Over the six years, the cumulative grosses of the best picture nominees have seen a steady slide, as voters have increasingly favored art-house films.