Will Twice the Best Picture Oscar Nominees Mean Twice as Many Good Movies?

Who says Hollywood doesn’t have a sense of humor (aside from anyone who sat through Land of the Lost or Imagine That)? In the middle of a summer movie season packed with sequels, 3-D kiddie distractions, and SFX showcases based on toys that the scripters probably played with in the 1980s, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced on June 24th that, beginning in 2010,  it will double the finalists for the Best Picture Academy Award from five films to 10, a number it used–more or less–from 1932 to 1943.

Call this the Joker’s final revenge. Every February, a large segment of the moviegoing public sits down to watch at least some of the three-plus hours that is the annual Oscars broadcast, and by the time the show gets to Best Picture, those still awake may wonder why box-office favorites, such as 2008’s The Dark Knight, get passed over in favor of less popular, but more sophisticated, fare like Frost/Nixon or The Reader.

Said Academy president Sid Ganis, “Having 10 Best Picture nominees is going to allow voters to recognize and 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.”  Could Ganis have been referring to 2008 nominees Australia, Wanted and Kung Fu Panda?Probably not.

No, what this expansion more likely means is that the major studios are getting a sop thrown their way. Now when the producers of arthouse films like Slumdog, No Country for Old Men, and Crash step up to claim their golden statues, the corporations behind your summer blockbusters and star-driven vehicles will have five more chances to plaster “Best Picture Nominee” in newspaper ads and rake in a few extra bucks, if not in theatres, then perhaps on home video.

On the positive side, it may, at least, offer more comedies a shot at the brass ring, since the genre is perenially bypassed as not being “prestigious” enough. A more interesting tack for the Academy to take would have been to follow the example of the much-maligned Golden Globe Awards, which separate the Best Picture and Actor/Actress laurels by drama and comedy/musical.

The most ironic note about this announcement is that it comes during the 70th anniversary of the year that many consider the apex of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The Best Picture finalists for 1939 included Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights, and the eventual  winner, a little Civil war tale called Gone with the Wind. Among the films not even nominated that year were Beau Geste, Gunga Din, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Hunchback of Notre Dame,  Intermezzo,  and The Roaring Twenties. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that the list for 2009 won’t be quite in the same league.

Even so, Michael Bay, don’t go making room on that office mantel for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’s Best Picture Oscar just yet.