Two days ago Mark Harris posted a Grantland/”Hollywood Prospectus” column that explained why the Academy’s decision to expand the number of Best Picture nominations (i.e., “the Nolan rule”) has conversely led to a smaller pool of films and filmmakers being nominated for Oscars. He reports that 2013’s “major-category nominations — 44 in all — were spread among just 12 films — the fewest in 30 years. [And] the second-lowest number of films represented in the major nominations in the last 30 years — 14 — happened just one year ago. And the third-lowest also happened in the five years since the rule change. The inescapable truth: Best Picture may have gotten bigger, but the Oscars have gotten smaller.”
Why? Laziness. Academy members are “prioritizing” — i.e., not doing their homework by watching enough films, allowing themselves to be led along like sheep by heavily funded Oscar campaigns. “I suspect that the practical effect of a larger Best Picture field is that AMPAS voters now tend to divide the 50-odd DVD screeners they receive [each year] into two piles,” Harris writes. “Movies they ‘should’ see (in other words, the big contenders) and everything else. Guess how often the second pile never gets looked at until it’s too late?”
Three principal causes, Harris believes, are (a) distributors’ longstanding inclination to release Oscar-bait movies during the fourth quarter, (b) “heavily repetitive award ceremonies [that] tend to reinforce a narrative of inevitability that pushes borderline movies even further to the margins,” and (c) the high cost of nomination-seeking campaigns, which tends to persuade the “everything else” producers to think twice about spending all that dough.
Harris doesn’t mention the influence of award-season handicappers, particularly the Gurus of Gold and Gold Derby lists of likely or favored nominees. For most of us the season begins around in early to mid September with Telluride/Toronto/Venice, and not long after these festivals journalist-contributors (I’m a Gold Derby guy) are routinely and regularly asked to share educated guesses as to which films and performances are most likely to be nominated. These lists marginalize or flat-out eliminate the “everything else” films early on, and prune the hotties down to…what, 11 or 12 films? Fewer?
“What the expanded Best Picture pool — reinforced by the campaigns and the release timetable — has done is to concretize a sense among voters that major nominations should, whenever possible, come from top-tier movies,” Harris writes. “And that’s damaging. Films like All Is Lost, Blue Is the Warmest Color, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Enough Said, Fruitvale Station, Inside Llewyn Davis, Prisoners and Rush clearly didn’t have the gas in their tanks or the broad-based support from voters to get Best Picture nominations, but before this rule change, every one of them would have stood a decent chance of emerging on nomination day with one major citation — something that would make moviegoers say, ‘I really should catch up with that one.'”
All Is Lost? Nobody wanted to see that film. They just wouldn’t go or they wouldn’t watch the whole screener at home. On top of which Harris was never much of a fan of Robert Redford‘s landmark performance in that film.