Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Scattered Pictures: AMPAS Going Back to the Way We Were?

As you've no doubt heard by now, THR is reporting that a "significant faction" within the Academy (however many that ambiguous number may be) is pushing for the Best Picture category to be reduced back down to five nominees.
The board of governors will give the issue serious consideration during their annual meeting at the end of March. It's entirely possibly that before the end of the month, the 2016 Oscar race will be thrown for its first big loop.

For starters, I truly believe it behoves no one to get all worked up about this potential decision before it's even made. There are valid arguments to be made for either side of the fence on which the board of governors may fall, but there are also facile arguments that hold no water. My own opinion on the matter is a bit complicated, but it helps to go back six years ago to when this all began.

Was this the TSN Turning Point for AMPAS?

January 22, 2009 is a day that will live in Oscar infamy, as the box office behemoth The Dark Knight – after being cited by every major industry guild – failed to attain its much deserved (and expected) Best Picture nomination from the Academy (the fate of modern masterpiece WALL-E was equally disappointing but less surprising). Voices both online and off cried foul over AMPAS' rigid tastes, and disconnection to the state of modern filmmaking. The Oscar broadcast that year may have been superb, but Batman's pointed absence in the top category was reflected by the lowest TV ratings in ages. Of course, flagging ratings were nothing new to the Academy, whose preference for relatively obscure prestige films over populist fare had always kept the mass public at arms length, but this particular snub is perceived by many to be the straw that broke the camel's back.

Within a month of that under-viewed ceremony, the shocking news dropped that the Best Picture field for the coming years would be expanded to an exorbitant ten nominees. My initial thoughts on this bombshell were... unsupportive. You didn't need to be an Academy insider to see what a craven grab this was for a broader television audience, thinly veiled as an attempt to celebrate a greater number of the year's best cinematic achievements. The board of governors were clearly hoping that casting a wider net would allow more mainstream hits to permeate the organization's collective taste, thus boosting viewership for the telecast.

And the funny thing: For a while there, it seemed to work.

The following 2010 broadcast boasted the highest ratings of the decade, including high-grossing Best Picture nominees Avatar, Up, The Blind Side, Inglourious Basterds, and District 9 (all > $100M pre-nomination) to go along with more modest critical darlings The Hurt Locker, Precious, Up in the Air, A Single Man, and An Education. The experiment was a success!

... or was it?

Look closely at that 2009 lineup and you'll realize that the main draw of the telecast for the masses – the possibility of seeing Avatar win – didn't require the added five slots. The gargantuan sci-fi-actioner's equally gargantuan haul of nine nominations (including Best Director) surely indicates that it would've been one of the five in a standard year, and the ratings would've been just as high. But what happens in every other year when you don't have an Avatar-level hit?


In the five years since, the ratings have continued their downward trend, and the extra openings have recently served more as a safety net for typical 'Oscar movies' that would otherwise fall short (think The Theory of Everything, Philomena, War Horse, etc.) than as an opportunity for successful, critically respected, mainstream genre movies to break through (think Gone Girl, Frozen, Skyfall, etc.).

So the experiment has not been a success. At least, not in the way the Academy intended. But does that mean going back to five is the appropriate response?

According to THR's sources, the main gripe that this "significant faction" has with the current system is that it diminishes the "prestige" of a Best Picture nomination. That's a hard argument to buy, quite frankly. Sure, the extra space has allowed some real clunkers to find their way in, but some of the most inspired Best Picture nominees in recent memory likely owe their status as such to the widened field; Selma, Whiplash, Her, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Amour, The Tree of Life,
The Kids Are All Right, Toy Story 3, Inception... More often for better than for worse, the 5+ system has bestowed worthy recognition on some truly excellent movies that otherwise wouldn't have stood a chance. The sad reality is that in the eyes of this older faction, these movies are not the type they want to see associated with their highest honour.

This faction is also attempting to use the poor TV ratings as evidence of the experiment's failure, but reverting back to the way things were is certainly not going to do anything to fix that problem. If they think viewership is low now, wait until movies like American Sniper and The Help start getting squeezed out of contention.

This isn't to imply that there would be no merits to going back to the traditional method. For one, we could finally do away with that problematic preferential ballot, which (when prefaced by the PGA) has made Best Picture surprises virtually impossible. Besides, no movie should be able to win this award with fewer first place votes than another.

I'd also prefer a set number of nominees to the confusing variable roster size that's yielded slates of nine and eight these last four seasons. And while committing to ten is theoretically more inclusive of foreign, animated, and genre movies, that pattern seems to have quickly petered out now that awards strategists know how to angle more of the usual prestige pictures towards voting members. At least setting the ceiling at five would all but assure that dubious inclusions like
The Blind Side and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close never happen again (hopefully).

But if the choice is made to return to the old order, the saddest part about it won't be that a few less treasures get nominated each year; It'll be that the Academy will have more or less confessed that the initial expansion was not made not in the interest of artistic diversification, but in the interest of commercial pandering.
It's a truth that we who follow this nonsense on a 365-day calendar already know and accept, but to Joe Public, seeing the Academy renege on the format so quickly after instituting it could damage their reputation far worse than that notorious Dark Knight snub ever could.

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  5. Honestly, I don't see why people have such a problem with the preferential ballot. The preferential voting system, for sure, can share the same issues with "first past the post" voting, but it does prevent Academy members from feeling that their ballot is more useful if they vote for the one of the pair that's likely the main competition that they dislike least/like more as opposed to voting for the film they actually like that doesn't have much support (a.k.a. the spoiler effect).

    Plus, there's the obvious fact that the people who didn't vote for the eventual winner can actually be the minority voting body in comparison with those who voted for the winner (evident especially in a situation where everyone receives around 20% of the votes, including the winner). A Best Picture winner that emerges out of a first-past-the-post voting system with 21% votes--meaning everyone else (79%) were technically against that winning film--just doesn't sound effective a method to singling out the best film of the year.

    By ranking films and eliminating those nominees with the least certain passionate support (i.e. #1 spots), the preferential ballot process can simulate multiple voting rounds where the eliminated films no longer existed and will ensure that the film that ultimately gets the necessary minimum of 50% plus 1 will actually be one that's the consensus favorite, even if the process has to boil down to only two films. With first-past-the-vote, you cannot ensure that the winning film gets an obvious 50% plus 1; with preferential, you will.

    Ultimately, I think the Best Picture film winning with 50% plus 1 and the runner-up nominee getting 50% minus 1 (i.e. extreme result of preferential vote) is definitely better than the winning film potentially getting 20% plus a few votes and the other nine losing Best Picture nominees getting 20% minus a few votes for each (i.e. extreme result of first-past-the-post vote).

    Btw, we mustn't blame the PGA's foretelling of the Best Picture winner through the use of the same voting system. PGA and AMPAS are two different entities, though they may overlap. If they want to mirror each other's top award, more power to them.

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