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Mark Harris on the Oscars

Mark Harris on the Oscars — Our columnist questions the academy’s choice to increase the number of Best Picture nominees

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Last February, 36 million people watched the Oscars, making it the season’s highest-rated entertainment telecast. So why are the people who run the show suddenly acting like they’ll face the guillotine unless they agree to trash both common sense and their own history? Last month, the Academy made two staggeringly bad decisions: The slate of Best Picture nominees will grow from 5 to 10, and honorary awards will be ghettoized in a separate ceremony in November. These changes will presumably make the Oscars much more user-friendly to a whole new group of people who — sorry, Academy — still don’t care and still won’t watch.

First, let’s talk about those honorary Oscars. Yes, they are sometimes tedious national pee breaks in an endless night. But did the Academy’s Board of Governors forget that they’ve also provided some of the ceremony’s most defining emotional moments? Charlie Chaplin returning from exile to receive the longest standing ovation in Oscar history. The wounds of McCarthyism reopening 50 years later as some audience members refuse to applaud Elia Kazan. Denzel Washington and honoree Sidney Poitier raising their statuettes in mutual salute as the crowd roars, acknowledging the four decades between black Best Actor winners and all the struggle those years contained. Those moments wove together the entire 100-year tapestry of film. Apparently, they’re now expendable.

I’ve used the word history twice because I fear that nobody who okayed this move even used it once. Well, in doubling the Best Picture nominees, they did cite the pre-1944 period when up to 12 movies competed. But that era, for much of which the major studios were each releasing 50 films annually, is nothing like this one, in which 20 is considered robust. Clearly, internal dissatisfaction with this year’s omission of two hugely popular films, WALL·E and The Dark Knight, spurred the change. Many people thought both movies should have been nominees, including me. Voters disagreed. That happens. When it does, you gripe, shrug, realize that not everyone shares your taste, and move on. You don’t stamp your feet until they change the rules.

Academy president Sid Ganis has said that this ”fix” will allow movies like Dark Knight to reap the prestige of a Best Picture nomination. But it also dilutes that prestige by half. Why stop at 10? Have 50! That way, you can make room for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and be as popular as the MTV Movie Awards, which are watched by 5 million people! (Quick math lesson for the Academy: 5 million < 36 million.)

Big studios would, of course, love to see Academy voters lower the bar. In the last decade, they stampeded into the indie-film game, overspent to make a bunch of really good movies, realized that was bad business, and stampeded out again just before the economy went to hell. Now back in risk-averse mode, they want trophies for their bread and butter — easily marketable formula movies. But Star Trek and The Hangover, fun though they may be, will never deserve Best Picture nominations. To pretend otherwise in the name of ”democratizing” the process is to assent to the belligerent populist-yahoo fallacy that if a lot of people see a movie, it must be good — and prizeworthy. Is someone at ABC convincing the Academy that this will goose the ratings? That rationale has been used, over the decades, to move the show earlier in the year, earlier in the evening, and from Monday to Sunday. None of it helped — and dumbing down the awards won’t either.

The saving grace of this misbegotten alteration is that Oscar voters are hard to boss around. They vote with their hearts, tear ducts, adrenal glands, and sometimes heads, not with a list of box office grosses. If the 2009 nominees include cartoons like Up and uncompromising indies like The Hurt Locker, what now seems like pandering could instead play as interesting diversity. But the Academy needs to institute one more reform. In a voting process too insanely complicated to detail here, each Academy member will select 10 nominees, but only one vote per ballot will be tabulated; the other nine will be discarded. That system, which has its origins in politics, makes little sense for movies. If the Academy is asking voters to select a longer, richer list of films, it must make sure that every vote — for every movie — counts.