And The Oscar Goes To…Bruno?

Interesting news from Hollywood this week, with word that the Academy Awards will expand to ten Best Picture nominees in 2010. Why the change? bruno_narrowweb__300x3710.jpgWhile the Oscar telecast actually had an uptick in viewers last year, overall ratings have declined dramatically in recent years — from a 1998 (“Titanic”-fueled) high point of 57 million viewers, to just under 37 million in 2009. The hope of the Academy is that the five extra movies will add in more mass-appeal films that will ultimately boost interest and ratings. The Academy may also be hoping for more suspense for the telecast with the winner presumably being harder to handicap with ten candidates in the mix.

The change also brings a lot of unknowns to the process. While the Oscar contest may soon look somewhat like an Israeli election — with the top party barely cracking 20% — there will be no horse trading to reach a coalition majority win. In Oscar-land we could conceivably see an Oscar going to a movie with a small but devoted following — but one that the majority of Academy voters (and TV viewers) gave a thumbs-down. How might the new realities of minority rule play out?

While this change will indeed likely add more blockbuster (and presumably ratings-boosting) films like “The Dark Knight” to a nomination and possibly a win, another likely scenario has a true dark horse being nominated and sliding by to victory. The new ten-nominee format may very well allow documentaries and foreign films to land on the nominee list. Could “Man on Wire” have been nominated or even won the award in 2009 with nothing else remotely like it on the Academy ballot? Animated movies, often mentioned on the “almost-nominated” list each year, will now easily see the best of their breed being nominated. “Wall-E” would seem to have been a shoo-in for a nomination had there been ten nominees in 2009 — could nine live-action movies have kept a popular and well-reviewed animated film from a winning plurality, and with it, Best Picture?

On the other hand, while handicapping a winner will be tougher, conventional wisdom may still be inevitable, even with ten nominees. In 2009, much of the lack of excitement for the Oscar broadcast stemmed from the widespread assumption that “Slumdog Millionaire” would win the prize. And if the opinion of moviegoers was any indication, the vote was indeed anything but close. The 2009 Edison Research Academy Award exit poll survey conducted for AMC Theaters last March indicated a clear preference for “Slumdog Millionaire.” Among our sample of moviegoers who had seen all five nominated films, 45% chose “Slumdog” the eventual Oscar winner as their favorite (trouncing #2 Milk with 26%). Would adding another five films to challenge “Slumdog” have made a difference in its ultimate Oscar win? Who knows how extra nominees would have shaken things up, but given its dominance in the Edison poll, it seems unlikely another movie lurking on the sidelines would have denied “Slumdog” a win.

Still, the new rules will mean some interesting nominees at the very least…and a near naked Bruno flying in from the rafters to begin his thank yous is not a complete impossibility.

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