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Oscar Overcrowding

It’s been four years since the Academy expanded its Best Picture field, so does the supersize category actually boost the awards show’s ratings? Or help the movies make more money? EW investigates

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On June 24, 2009, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced a controversial change: It was doubling down on its Best Picture nominees. The field would expand from five to 10 as part of an effort to “include some of the fantastic movies that often show up in the other Oscar categories but have been squeezed out of the race for the top prize,” as then Academy president Sid Ganis explained.

The not-so-hidden agenda was to boost the ratings of the Oscar telecast, which had plummeted to a record low of 32 million viewers in 2008. If more popular films were nominated, the thinking went, more people would tune in to see if any of those films won. So, four years later, did the gamble pay off?

First, the good news: On average, ratings for ABC’s Oscar shows from 2010 to 2013 ticked up about 7 percent compared with the four-year period before the race expanded. (In 2011, the Academy recalibrated the category again, so that it could recognize anywhere from five to 10 movies.) The downside is that there has been almost no correlation between the popularity of the nominated films and show ratings. Other variables — who’s hosting and which stars are nominated — seem to be the determining factors. “If it was an effort to bolster show ratings, then…abject failure,” says one longtime Academy member.

But if the goal was to give recognition to a wider (read: more popular) range of films, that has undoubtedly worked. Since 2010, the combined average domestic box office of nominees has almost doubled over the previous four years, thanks to the inclusion of films like The Blind Side in 2010 and Toy Story 3 in 2011.

In a bitter twist, while the overall box office for nominees has skyrocketed, the actual value of a Best Picture nom has fallen. Insiders often refer to the “Oscar bump” — the amount of money a film makes after it gets a Best Pic nod. In the four years leading up to the change, contenders saw ticket sales climb by an average of almost 80 percent. Since then, it’s been less than 64 percent.

Here’s why: When a blockbuster like Avatar gets nominated, its box office doesn’t increase much, relatively, because everyone has already seen it. In fact, the movies that still benefit the most from a nomination are the same kinds of indie darlings that the Best Picture race historically favors. (Of the movies nominated since 2010, the one with the biggest bump was the French-language end-of-life love story Amour: 706 percent.)

Furthermore, when the Academy gives nominations to summer movies — as it did in 2010 for District 9 or in 2011 for Inception — those films aren’t even in theaters during Oscar season, so they get no bump at all. The studios have adjusted to that, and are now shoving every prestige pic with even the most remote awards chances into the final months of the year — creating a bigger logjam in theaters than ever before. Four years ago, only 60 percent of the Oscar contenders were released between October and December. This year? All of them were.

Big Box Office Does Not Guarantee Big Ratings
If more popular films are nominated, more people will watch the Oscars, right? Not necessarily. The Academy expanded the field after 2009’s show. Since then, mainstream hits like Avatar, Up, and The Blind Side (in 2010); Inception and Toy Story 3 (in 2011); and The Help (in 2012) have all scored nods, but viewership has only increased by about 7 percent overall.

How Much Is A Best Picture Nomination Worth?
From 2006 to 2009, earning a Best Picture nod meant an average box office increase of almost 80 percent between nomination morning and Oscar night. But in the three years after the change, the “Oscar bumps” took a nosedive. Last year bucked that trend: Amour, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty all jumped by more than 100 percent.