''Avatar,'' ''Up in the Air,'' and ''Precious'' will likely be among the ten movies vying for Oscar glory

So the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expanded the Best Picture race because they want to shine their love on 10 nominees, rather than 5. But will their love mean as much if they start shining it any old place? And how’s the race likely to play out? Fair questions. Let’s travel back in time to 1999 and pretend that the Academy launched their grand experiment then. Would American Beauty still have won Best Picture? Maybe so, but Sam Mendes’ takedown of suburban culture might have at least done combat with films that audiences today consider classics of one kind or another: The Matrix, Being John Malkovich, Fight Club, and Election. Back to 2010 now. Will the five additional Best Picture slots go to great popular movies, so-so popular movies, or just five tiny indies that played nowhere near a theater near you? ”One of two things is going to happen. It’s either going to shake loose the way things have been going the last few years or it’s not,” says one veteran Oscar player. ”If it’s a list of 10 unworthy movies, then it didn’t work.”

Not many people would deny that the Academy needed to do something to invigorate the Oscar race and remind America about that awards show of theirs. Ratings have been slip-sliding for years, largely because viewers aren’t emotionally invested in the movies in question. (The Dark Knight got shut out last year, which many have argued was a crime worthy of the Joker.) Still, not everyone’s on board with the new plan. ”There are some really sensational movies, but I don’t believe there are 10,” says Dan Jinks, an Oscar-winning producer for American Beauty. ”There will be a bit of scraping the bottom of the barrel, and that just devalues the meaning of a Best Picture nominee.”

Oscar nominations won’t be announced until Feb. 2, but there’s been a consensus for weeks that Up in the Air, The Hurt Locker, and Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire are certain to get nods for Best Picture. Now a few more sure things are coming into focus. Some of them, insiders say, are happy surprises — movies that wouldn’t have stood a chance in a year with only five nominees. ”Avatar, Inglourious Basterds, and Up are in,” says the veteran Oscar player. ”We can say that pretty confidently. [Having 10 nominees] has already done what the Academy wanted.”

And the Academy leadership does sound pleased, particularly at the prospect of honoring more populist movies, such as James Cameron’s Avatar. ”Our biggest show in the past 15 years was Titanic. A lot of people saw it, loved it, and were invested in it. So a lot of people watched our show,” says Academy president Tom Sherak. ”If people love Avatar and it’s nominated, I think that’s a great thing. Could it help [with the ratings]? Sure.” Sherak knows many Oscar voters are bristling at the thought of 10 nominees, but adds, ”Whether they’re for it or against it, they are all saying the same thing: ‘Let’s see what happens.’ If it doesn’t work, we’ll stop.”

The fact that there’s controversy surrounding the Best Picture race — that there’s any discussion at all, really — counts as a victory in itself. And if voters can find 10 movies worth nominating, Hollywood may feel weirdly warm and fuzzy on Feb. 2. ”The day of the nominations is the snarkiest day of Oscar season because it’s all about who didn’t get invited,” says the veteran Oscar player. ”Well, why not do what you do in real life when you’re giving a party — just include more people.” (Additional reporting by Adam B. Vary)