The Game Has Changed

"All right, boys, let's get set up on a new rule change!"

Well, here we are.  A new site for a new season.  And what a perfect time for a change! After all, this isn’t just another Oscar season; the Academy has decided to trip us pundits up by throwing in yet another change to the Best Picture nomination rules.  Just when we were getting used to talking about “the ten,” it’s now a thing of the past.  This year – and for the time being, from now on – Best Picture can contain anywhere from five to ten nominees, depending on the percentage of #1 votes a film receives.  The minimum is 5%.  That may seem like a modest threshold of enthusiasm to cross, but then there’s this from Tom Sherak: “With the help of PricewaterhouseCoopers, we’ve been looking not just at what happened over the past two years, but at what would have happened if we had been selecting 10 nominees for the past 10 years…During the period studied, the average percentage of first place votes received by the top vote-getting movie was 20.5 [emphasis mine]…If this system had been in effect from 2001 to 2008 (before the expansion to a slate of 10), there would have been years that yielded 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 nominees.”

In other words, while the data clearly showed that there was enthusiasm for more than five films, seeing a full-on (or at least 5%) endorsement of ten pictures was not common.  But even more importantly, this system does not (except in the case of rounding to five) factor in second, third, fourth place votes, etc.  It doesn’t matter if the vast majority of voters love a particular movie.  If it isn’t the favorite on their ballot, it doesn’t count.

I say all of this because I still sense that most pundits, or prognosticators, experts, whatever you want to call them…and even the regular enthusiast still looks at the Best Picture race with the old rules in mind.  Too many pundits on other sites are throwing out names of “major contenders” that in reality are longshots at best.  Take for example a name that was furiously bandied about before being dropped almost as quickly as it was raised: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.  Sasha Stone has been one of its most hysterical partisans, making this hyperbolic assertion upon the film’s release: “On what planet will anyone look back on 2011 and not see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 2 as one of the best films of the year?  It’s an easy call.”  Yeah, right.

Now I’m not saying the film was bad.  As I made clear in my review, in my opinion it was a perfectly acceptable conclusion to a nice enough (if very flawed) film franchise that gave fans a final, tender hurrah.  But to those fans demanding a Best Picture nomination must ask themselves if they would even give it their #1 vote by the end of the year.  Some might, but with so many contenders on the horizon I doubt anyone will be feeling the euphoria of its initial impact.

“But Robert, it has a 96% at Rotten Tomatoes!” some of you may protest.  And The Dark Knight had a higher tomatometer score than Frost/Nixon, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Reader, and matched those of both Milk and Slumdog Millionaire.  You know which film trumps them all on that site?  The Wrestler.  And no – contrary to Sasha’s assertions – money is not the trump card, either, and a Michael Bay film would not be “seriously considered if it flirted” with Harry Potter’s grosses.  To date, there have only been ten movies in history that have made a billion dollars worldwide, and while one can certainly find Oscar champs in The Return of the King and Titanic among that exclusive club, what about Alice in WonderlandTransformers: Dark of the Moon is only about $200 million short of Deathly Hallows; I guess we should consider it as a Best Picture contender now?

"Well, I mean, gnuh, what if there was something LIKABLE about Inez? The audience cant handle that!"

This is also partially why I’m still skeptical about the prospects of Midnight in Paris.  Granted, I may be biased on this; my opinion of the film is way south of just about every major critic.  However, the sense I’m getting even from people who really liked it are that it’s “nice.”  It’s a nice movie that is amiable for an evening…but is it powerful enough to stick with people?  My sense right now is no, and I think that those with Woody Allen’s latest at #1 are going to dwindle over time as the passion is eroded by higher-profile, more “important,” and (hopefully) just plain better films come along in the fall.  The fact that it’s his highest-grosser ever helps…but it doesn’t seal anything, certainly not audience passion.

Because Passion with a capital “P” is what will determine what makes it to the winner’s circle if a film is on the fringe of the five “locked” contenders.  It doesn’t even matter if a plurality or even the majority of the Academy dislikes a contender; there just has to be 5% of them who love it enough to call it THE best.  That is why I firmly believe The Blind Side would still have been a Best Picture nominee had this new system been in place two years ago.  Sure, it bore the brunt of a lot of flak, but there was a significant number of viewers (and voters) who were very much emotionally affected by it, enough to call it the best of the year.

Two divisive films that do have the passion factor in their favor are The Help and The Tree of Life.  Again, I may be biased on the latter – it is still my favorite film of the year so far – but I don’t think my hunch is based solely on wishful thinking, either.  If this was a year of five-only BP nominees, I would seriously chalk up Terrence Malick as a lone Best Director nominee à la David Lynch or Julian Schnabel.  After all, his film has the kind of love-it-or-hate-it singular vision that Mulholland Dr. and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly enjoyed, no?  Under the new rules, however, such an occurrence is less likely, but even today I find write-ups, reviews, interpretations and journals describing personal feelings towards a five month-old film, an eternity relative to the Oscar season.  Perhaps that kind of focused passion will diminish over time, but I’m not ready to write it off just yet.

Courtesy of

Tate Taylor’s hit social message picture The Help has far more widespread passion.  Forget whatever reservations some (including me) have had about its troubling racial implications; many people absolutely flipped for it, including in the entertainment industry.  Yes, I realize that most of those are Twitter feeds, and a lot of those people aren’t exactly at the top of the Hollywood food chain.  But that’s just a small snapshot of what I strongly believe is a large contingent of voters who lose it over White Guilt dramas.

The question we need to ask ourselves is not whether it makes enough money (Titanic probably would have still been nominated for Best Picture even if it had been a box office disappointment) or critical consensus (or any kind of “consensus); what we need to ask is, “Will at least 300 Academy voters flip for this film and sing its praises from the mountaintops, even if it actually isn’t that good?”  That is why Big And Important Movies tend to win the Oscar regardless of quality.  Genre films and “pleasant” rom-coms just don’t have the “weight” that voters – right or wrong – believe a #1 film should have.

That’s the way the game under the new rules has been set.

…then again, my theory may not actually hold up.  Ten years ago one could have made the same argument against Chocolat