I would not be surprised to see the experiment of an expanded list of Best Picture Oscar nominees come to a quick end. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a body of about 6000 industry professionals that awards the famous statuettes, doubled the number of Best Picture nominees to 10 this year while leaving all other categories unchanged. The motivation, ironically, was to include blockbuster movies that are frequently pushed aside by those pesky unknown independent and low-budget movies the Academy voters tend to favor. Of course, the Academy was not really worried about blockbuster movies not getting enough attention. Their concern was declining ratings for the annual awards broadcast. Viewers are understandably less excited about awards going to movies they have never heard of, let alone seen. By nominating 10 movies for Best Picture the Academy reasoned that popular movies that would otherwise be snubbed by the hoity-toity Oscars would be included in the celebration and draw more people to watch the awards show. .
The extended list of nominees did include three popular movies that would otherwise have been overlooked: Up, The Blind Side, and District 9. Avatar, the all-time blockbuster, was nominated, but it would have been a lock to be nominated even in the original 5-picture format. And Up, an animated movie, was nominated for best animated picture, so its inclusion in the Best Picture nominee list did not really expand things. Of the remaining 6 Best Picture nominees, Inglourious Basterds cracked the $100 million mark, and Up in the Air had a respectable $83 million.
But Avatar is the elephant in the room. Visually groundbreaking and tremendous fun to watch, Avatar was the movie of 2009. While The Hurt Locker is a great movie, Avatar is a landmark movie and one that, like The Wizard of Oz, will be talked about for years, likely decades to come. By not giving Avatar the Best Picture Oscar, the Academy risks making itself seem even more elitist and disconnected from moviegoers. While we’ll never know, I believe that had their been only 5 nominees, as in years past, Avatar would have won. The reason is that to accommodate the expanded list of nominees, the Academy changed the voting procedure for Best Picture. Rather than voters simply selecting the one movie they would like to win, for Best Picture they ranked movies from 1 to 10. If less than 50% of the voters ranked any one movie at the top, the lowest ranking movie is eliminated, and the 2nd ranked movie on all the ballots that had the eliminated movie ranked first would then get tallied in a second round of voting. The process of eliminating from the bottom up continues until one movie is the top selection of more than 50% of the ballots.
The reason this might have tilted things away from Avatar is that even if a plurality of voters chose Avatar to win Best Picture (the only requirement necessary in years past), if a significant fraction of the other voters placed Avatar far down the list while The Hurt Locker ranked at number 2 or near the top of almost everyone’s list, The Hurt Locker would eventually come out on top. I think voters that did not want Avatar to win, really didn’t want it to win and so could effectively cast an anti-Avatar vote by ranking it low on their list. Meanwhile, nobody who saw The Hurt Locker would be actively against it winning. It’s a great, tense movie, and certainly in no way is it undeserving of winning Best Picture. Avatar, on the other hand, while in some ways a cliche, is, it’s fair to say, a film for the ages. The Academy is certainly not against giving Best Picture awards to big blockbusters. See Titanic (deserving), and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (not so much). My guess: Avatar had a plurality of first-place votes on the first round of ballot-counting as well as a significant number of low-ranking votes from the stereotypical grumpy Academy member who was resentful of its success, irritated by its corny message, or determined to reward the excellent lesser known movies on the ballot. Avatar, after all, already has its billions, the thinking might have gone. Meanwhile, The Hurt Locker probably ranked in the top three on almost every ballot. So this year’s Best Picture winner might have been more of a consensus winner, while in years past a movie could theoretically have won with merely 20% plus 1 vote.