Can this summer's Star Trek reboot go where no Trek film has gone before to the Oscars' biggest race? Now that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced it is doubling the number of Best Picture nominees from 5 to 10, J.J. Abrams' well-reviewed blockbuster could end up as one of the highest-profile beneficiaries. Still, while AMPAS' unexpected decision stands to open the race to several of the year's more crowd-pleasing films, it has also turned out to be quite polarizing, with some Academy members calling it a necessary step toward Oscar inclusion and others insisting that it tarnishes the industry's most important prize.
Academy president Sid Ganis explains that the decision stems from months of debate over how to open the Oscar tent to allow a comedy, a documentary, or an animated film in to compete with the typical ''Academy'' films. ''People said, 'Why don't you have a Best Comedy award?' 'Why don't you do Best $100 Million-Grossing Movies?''' he says. ''All of it didn't sit right with us.'' But when Bill Condon, a Best Adapted Screenplay winner for Gods and Monsters and producer of the most recent Oscar telecast, suggested reverting to the 10-nominee format of the 1930s and '40s, Ganis says, ''this one seemed like something we should consider.''
The June 24 announcement came as a shock to all but the Academy's 43-member Board of Governors, who also voted to cut its honorary awards from the telecast and tweak the rules in the Original Song category. ''I didn't see that coming, for sure,'' says DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, who adds, ''I certainly find at least 10 films a year that I really liked.'' But many voters scoff that the Oscars will now have as many Best Picture noms as the Golden Globes (though the Globes are in two categories). ''I think it diminishes the value of the nomination,'' says producer Dan Jinks, a Best Picture winner for American Beauty and nominee for Milk. ''Every year there's a large group of people who make a point of going out to see the five movies that are nominated for Best Picture before the Oscars. Once there are 10, that doesn't feel as doable for the general public.''
Several Academy members are also skeptical of the leadership's true motive in making the switch. Was it a result of pressure from the big studios trying to increase their chances at scoring nods alongside Holocaust dramas and indie films? ''Absurd,'' says Ganis. Another voter has a different take: ''ABC was going to reduce the license fee,'' he says, explaining that the network threatened to cut the amount of money it pays the Academy to air the telecast unless AMPAS came up with a way to include more audience-friendly films in the Oscar proceedings and thus, hopefully, increase ratings. ''This was the solution for how to get [a smash like] The Dark Knight nominated.'' (ABC declined to comment.) Ganis denies that too: ''The No. 1 reason to do it is to create a more realistic opportunity for excellent moviemaking to get a nod.''
Regardless, Oscar campaigners are already thinking about how those five extra lines on the ballot will affect the race. For starters, having 10 nominees means a film can now be nominated with far fewer votes. ''It will help films that have very strong support amongst a certain core group,'' says 42West exec Cynthia Swartz, who spearheaded campaigns for The Departed and No Country for Old Men. ''That group could be New Yorkers, it could be Brits, it could be sound guys.''
For Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker, it means twice the chance at gaining an invite to the big dance. ''If you have a film like Frozen River or Rachel Getting Married, and you have 10 slots instead of 5, you have a better shot at getting in there,'' he says. ''But it's going to be even more challenging to get Academy members to see your movie, because there are going to be so many more titles in the race.''
As for Abrams, who very well might hear the name of his popcorn flick
called next Feb. 2: ''Why stop at 10?'' he says. ''There should be 100 Best
Picture nominees, and the show could last all week. Could you imagine
being the 101st? Paul Blart!''
Additional reporting by Carrie Bell
And the nominees are...?
Our ridiculously early guess at next year's supersize Best Picture roster
Avatar (Dir. James Cameron, Dec. 18)
The Hurt Locker (Dir. Kathryn Bigelow, out now)
The Informant! (Dir. Steven Soderbergh, Sept. 18)
Invictus (Dir. Clint Eastwood, Dec. 11)
The Lovely Bones (Dir. Peter Jackson, Dec. 11)
Nine (Dir. Rob Marshall, Nov. 25)
Public Enemies (Dir. Michael Mann, out now)
Shutter Island (Dir. Martin Scorsese, Oct. 2)
Star Trek (Dir. J.J. Abrams, out now)
Up (Dir. Pete Docter, out now)