Academy Awards Best Picture 2011

After expanding category from five to 10 movies in 2009, the academy says a film now must receive at least 5% of the first-place votes to receive a nomination

Newly painted Oscar Statues. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

Two years after expanding the best-picture race from five to 10 films in a bid to draw a larger audience to the Oscar telecast, the Motion Picture Academy has tweaked its rules again, switching to a more stringent, variable nominating system that will result in between five and 10 movies in the contest each year.

The 2009 expansion to 10 films infuriated those in the industry who felt that the academy was diluting its prestige in hopes of larger audience for its show by offering more populist films a shot in the competition. An initial boost for the 2010 telecast was reversed this year when the ratings for the show, hosted by young actors Anne Hathaway and James Franco, fell 10%.

In announcing the rule change, the academy's board of governors said the move would add "a new twist" to the best-picture race, and "a new element of surprise" to its annual nominations announcement, which happens in late January. But the shift does not address what many critics say is the most pressing problem facing the Oscar broadcast, which falls in late February after months of other ceremonies by various Hollywood guilds and groups: a lack of suspense and a general awards weariness.

Still, Tuesday night's announcement of the new rules was met by support from many in Hollywood.

"This is a good change, " said Terry Press, veteran Oscar campaign consultant. "I think we are all aware of years where five didn't cover it and 10 was too many."

The decision comes amid a sea change at the academy. Executive Director Bruce Davis will retire at the end of June after 30 years at the academy; Dawn Hudson, formerly of Film Independent, began her tenure on the first of the month.

"The board examines this every year and while overall there is a feeling that we like expanding the best-picture nominees, we wanted to make sure that wherever the cutoff is, those films have garnered the most support from the membership, " Hudson said Wednesday.

The academy uses a preferential nominations process whereby its nearly 6, 000 voting members rank their preferred candidates for best picture from 1 to 10. Academy officials said that after much analysis, it was determined that a film must receive at least 5% of the first-place votes to receive a nomination.

In a rare glimpse into academy voting patterns, officials said that over the last 10 years, the average percentage of first-place votes received by the top nominee was 20.5%. The officials said that if the new system had been in place between 2001 and 2008, the best-picture slate would have had between five and nine nominees in those years.

Some believe the academy is scrambling to restore confidence in the organization after the change to 10 best-picture nominees was met with ridicule by a number of members and media critics. According to one person who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to talk on the record, the academy two years ago considered the system adopted Tuesday as an alternative to expanding the race to 10 films.

But others said they were impressed by the academy's nimbleness. "I think we should all be encouraged that the academy is constantly examining the process, " Press said. "With this and the hiring of Dawn, they are showing a desire to evolve, and that's a good thing."

Award campaign strategists are now wondering how the new rule will change the way the race is run. Given the number of members who typically cast nominating ballots, a film would have to secure roughly 240 first-place votes on the nominations ballot to clear the 5% threshold and enter the best-picture race.

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