For a good many years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated five films every year for the Best Picture Oscar. That system worked well, but two years ago the Academy decided to change it up a bit and revisit a policy from decades earlier, where ten films were give the Best Picture nod. That didn’t seem like such a bad thing, as it was pretty obvious that five, or perhaps only two or three, films would be the ones really in the running for the award. The balance of the ten nominees were considered great movies for the year in question, but not likely to win Best Picture for any number of reasons. (Which are often more to do with industry politics and campaigning than anything else.) But those films that were nominated and not destined to win could still get a boost from the nomination. (Hello, Winter’s Bone.)

Now the Academy is introducing a new wrinkle to the Oscar ceremony each year: there will be between five and ten Best Picture nominations, but the precise number will not be known until the nominations are announced each year.

A press release went out from the Academy to announce the policy change, and this is the most pertinent bit, from Academy executive director Bruce Davis:

In studying the data, what stood out was that Academy members had regularly shown a strong admiration for more than five movies… A Best Picture nomination should be an indication of extraordinary merit. If there are only eight pictures that truly earn that honor in a given year, we shouldn’t feel an obligation to round out the number.

In theory, this seems sound. Nominate the number of films that voters are clamoring to nominate, and give people an unpredictable X factor when it comes to the nomination list. How does that sound as a new aspect of the Oscar procees? In addition to this alteration, a few changes have been made to the way that Oscar contenders are nominated for visual effects awards, and for Best Animated Film, too, as outlined below.

Here’s the full press release:

Beverly Hills, CA — The governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voted on Tuesday (6/14) to add a new twist to the 2011 Best Picture competition, and a new element of surprise to its annual nominations announcement. The Board voted to institute a system that will now produce anywhere between five and 10 nominees in the category. That number won’t be announced until the Best Picture nominees themselves are revealed at the January nominations announcement.

“With the help of PricewaterhouseCoopers, we’ve been looking not just at what happened over the past two years, but at what would have happened if we had been selecting 10 nominees for the past 10 years,” explained Academy President Tom Sherak, who noted that it was retiring Academy executive director Bruce Davis who recommended the change first to Sherak and incoming CEO Dawn Hudson and then to the governors.

During the period studied, the average percentage of first place votes received by the top vote-getting movie was 20.5. After much analysis by Academy officials, it was determined that 5% of first place votes should be the minimum in order to receive a nomination, resulting in a slate of anywhere from five to 10 movies.

“In studying the data, what stood out was that Academy members had regularly shown a strong admiration for more than five movies,” said Davis. “A Best Picture nomination should be an indication of extraordinary merit. If there are only eight pictures that truly earn that honor in a given year, we shouldn’t feel an obligation to round out the number.”

If this system had been in effect from 2001 to 2008 (before the expansion to a slate of 10), there would have been years that yielded 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 nominees.

The final round of voting for Best Picture will continue to employ the preferential system, regardless of the number of nominees, to ensure that the winning picture has the endorsement of more than half of the voters.

Other rules changes approved by the Board include:

In the animated feature film category, the need for the Board to vote to “activate” the category each year was eliminated, though a minimum number of eligible releases – eight – is still required for a competitive category. Additionally, the short films and feature animation branch recommended, and the Board approved refinements to the number of possible nominees in the Animated Feature category. In any year in which eight to 12 animated features are released, either two or three of them may be nominated. When 13 to 15 films are released, a maximum of four may be nominated, and when 16 or more animated features are released, a maximum of five may be nominated.

In the visual effects category, the “bakeoff” at which the nominees are determined will expand from seven to 10 contenders. The increase in the number of participants is related to a change made last year in which the number of films nominated in the visual effects category was increased from three to five.

Previously, the Board approved changes to the documentary feature and documentary short category rules that now put those categories’ eligibility periods in line with the calendar year and thus with most other awards categories. The change means that for the 84th Awards cycle only, the eligibility period is more than 12 months; it is from September 1, 2010 to December 31, 2011.

Other modifications of the 84th Academy Awards rules include normal date changes and minor “housekeeping” changes.

Rules are reviewed annually by individual branch and category committees. The Awards Rules Committee then reviews all proposed changes before presenting its recommendations to the Academy’s Board of Governors for approval.

The 84th Academy Awards nominations will be announced live on Tuesday, January 24, 2012, at 5:30 a.m. PT in the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater.

Academy Awards for outstanding film achievements of 2011 will be presented on Sunday, February 26, 2012, at the Kodak Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center®, and televised live by the ABC Television Network. The Oscar presentation also will be televised live in more than 200 countries worldwide.

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