Those who are staging the Academy Awards ceremony at the same site on March 7 should be thinking about beige, given that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been trying to avoid some difficult choices.
And yet, as the 82nd Oscar night approaches, the annual race has had its share of excitement. Movies like “Bright Star” and “Capitalism: A Love Story,” after hot starts at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, fell back in the pack.
Jeff Bridges, meanwhile, came out of nowhere to become one of the acting favorites, with “Crazy Heart.” And Mr. Cameron’s 3-D “Avatar” finally opened, to rave reviews, making a contender of what might have been a novelty act.
But in a year that has felt a little confrontational — “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” which could be the first best-picture nominee from a black director, Lee Daniels, has been strongly criticized as “poverty porn” by some African-Americans — the academy has been dwelling in a comfort zone of its own making.
For the first time since 1943 governors of the 6,000-member academy have decided to list 10 best-picture nominees rather than the usual 5, in search of a wider audience for its national show. So, in a year of tough choices, Hollywood’s leading tastemakers have chosen to be less choosy.
Privately, some academy governors — who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid tarnishing their big night — have called the doubling of best-picture nominees an experiment. It will be put back on the shelf, one governor said recently, if ultimately the new plethora of contenders does not boost the energy level, and ratings, of ABC’s annual Oscar broadcast.
Generally the show’s audience has spiked when blockbuster movies have ruled the night, as “Titanic” did in 1998 (when there were 55 million viewers, according to Nielsen), or “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” in 2004 (43.5 million). The audience also has been large when a rich mix of popular movies converges with a popular host.
Something like that happened in 2005, when the slightly cerebral “Sideways” shared best-picture nominations with the sentimental hit “Million Dollar Baby” and the musical biopic “Ray,” on a night overseen by the sharp-tongued comedian Chris Rock. A robust audience of 42 million viewers tuned in, and 12.5 percent were African-Americans, double the number from the previous year.
With likely nominees as diverse as “Avatar” and “Precious” this year, the show’s appeal could be similarly wider. By contrast, in 2008, when Jon Stewart was the host and independent-style films like “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood” dominated, as few as 32 million viewers watched.
Not so many years ago, phone lines here crackled with complaints about nasty campaigns that raised charges of anti-Semitism against the real-life protagonist of “A Beautiful Mind” or accused the marketers behind “Brokeback Mountain” of soft-pedaling their gay love story. By contrast, this year’s race has been bloodless, presumably because the broad field of nominees for best picture makes it easier for the academy (the entire membership votes in the best-picture category) to do the kinds of things it has always done.
Does the group, as often noted, have a soft spot for Holocaust stories?
If so, no problem. With 10 nominees, there is plenty of room for “Inglourious Basterds,” even if Quentin Tarantino’s take on Nazis and Jews, arch and hyper-violent, might be scratching for the fifth nomination in a conventional year.
This year looks no different: “An Education,” the coming-of-age story of a London teenager, should find a place in the field of 10.
Must the brilliant independents be honored, ticket sales be damned?
Speaking by phone last month, Tom Sherak, the academy’s president, said he could see nothing but good in honoring the many people who contributed their labor to the 10 pictures, out of 274 eligible films, that will be nominated for best picture. “I’m not just talking about the producers,” Mr. Sherak said. “I mean everyone, from grips to gaffers to everyone else. They’re all going to be able to say, ‘I worked on a film that was nominated.’ ”
Still, the expansion of the best picture field is unlikely to solve problems in the Oscar process. Few are predicting, for instance, that any foreign-language film will make the cut: for Hollywood, the highest form of excellence is mostly achieved in English. (Like animated films and feature-length documentaries, foreign-language films can be nominated for best picture, though they have their own category.)
Neither will the best-picture nominees, in all likelihood, correct perceived inequities in the documentary slot, where the shortlist of 15 contenders (for five slots), chosen by the academy’s documentary branch, bypassed high-profile movies like “Tyson” and “Capitalism: A Love Story,” or the do-it-yourself sensation “Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” while recognizing a number of candidates that have been virtually unseen.
Despite some wishful thinking among the makers of those popular documentaries, they are not on the generally accepted lists of best-picture candidates.
(Though a dearth of animated nominees in the best-picture ranks may be corrected by a nomination for “Up.”)
In a running compilation of best-picture contenders maintained by the Web site Movie City News (moviecitynews.com/awards/index_gurus.html), 15 Oscar watchers by mid-December were offering nearly identical renderings of the 10 probable nominees; only the order was different.
“Invictus” made every list; Clint Eastwood directing Morgan Freeman in an inspirational story is classic Oscar fodder. “Nine,” meanwhile, was on 13 of 15, though over Christmas it missed its mark with the audience. Nevertheless a musical from Harvey Weinstein presses all the old buttons. Nobody was including “(500) Days of Summer,” despite its two Golden Globe nominations; when it comes to the Oscars, apparently, romantic comedies still do not play.
Sure, 10 nominees will create some new dilemmas. One can imagine Steven Spielberg trying to choose 10 best-picture nominees, while naming only five candidates for best director. Inevitably, he and the other nominators will be sending five films to the show without their directors, creating just the sort of snub he suffered in 1986, when “The Color Purple” picked up 11 nominations, including best picture, but he was overlooked as its director.
And in a really interesting year, one could argue, the academy has been defined by its snubs. What could be more telling than the decision, in 1970, to honor the old hand John Wayne as best actor for “True Grit,” while bypassing Dustin Hoffman, a countercultural hero for his work in the year’s best picture, “Midnight Cowboy”?
But this year the academy, like George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham, the corporate consultant in “Up in the Air” — a star vehicle that will surely find a place in the field of 10 — has chosen to fly above the turmoil, in a comfortable, if not wholly interesting, place.