What Will the New Best Picture Rules Mean for Genre Movies?

District 9's aliens denied civil rights, Academy Awards.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced today that they’re backing off from having ten nominees for Best Picture and moving instead to a floating system that will allow for a minimum of five contenders but as many as ten. Movies will have to get at least five percent of the nominating pool’s votes to make it into contention. I get the arguments for this change: there aren’t necessarily ten top-tier movies in any given year, and the expanded pool wasn’t making it more likely for foreign or animated movies to walk away with the Best Picture trophy (though I think a Pixar movie will win the top prize at some point). But I do worry about the impact that this change will have on recognition of genre movies.

I realize this is a double-edged sword, that if science fiction movies or fantasy movies or comic-book noirs or whatever make it into an expanded Best Picture category, it might get treated as filler rather than as a serious contender. But even if that’s how something like District 9 makes it into contention, I think on the whole it’s better to have it, or Avatar, or Inglourious Basterds (2010 was a good year for genre diversity) up against more conventional nominees like An Education, which hits a certain sophisticated period sweet spot, or The Blind Side or Precious, that year’s issue movies. If folks keep seeing aliens next to British thespians on their ballots and their clip shows, at some point they’ll be forced to think about why those stories are powerful to people, and why genre fiction is a vehicle for powerful, beautiful, expressive storytelling.

I do think at some point, when we’ve finished a generational shift, the Academy will become dramatically more accommodating to genre movies as the people who have devoted substantial chunks of their careers to those kinds of stories come of age. But until that happens, we’re going to keep having conversations about the Academy’s preference for certain kinds of bland moral lessons in a way that diverges from audiences’ tastes.