In a question-and-answer session that followed the announcement [Sidney Ganis, the academy’s president] said, "I would not be telling you the truth if I said the words ‘Dark Knight’ did not come up.
IN THE EMAIL: Christopher Althouse Cohen writes:
The most obvious pros and cons for either decision is that 5 slots are probably not enough to nominate every great movie in a given year, but on the other hand 10 slots is almost certain to lead to some pretty crappy movies getting nominated. Also, having 10 best picture nominees sort of lowers the value of a given nomination. A movie getting nominated at all right now seems like a really big deal for that movie, but it might not if there were 10. But you will be a lot more likely to see your favorite movies nominated with 10 slots.
Here were the nominees in 1943, the last time they had more than 5 nominees:
For Whom the Bell Tolls
Heaven Can Wait
In Which We Serve
The Human Comedy
The More the Merrier
The Ox-Bow Incident
The Song of Bernadette
Watch on the Rhine
I don't know enough of those movies to know if they deserved it (I think I've only seen two), but the fact that they were nominated doesn't make me want to run out and see all of them. Kind of looks like one really major classic, and then a long list of pretty good movies.
Now, here are last year's five nominees, which apparently will be the last time, at least for a while, that there are only five (along with their box office grosses before getting nominated):
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button ($104 million)
Frost/Nixon ($8.8 million)
Milk ($20 million)
The Reader ($8 million)
Slumdog Millionaire ($44 million)
Only one had a significant gross pre-nominations, and that one wasn't even a box office success given its $150 million budget. And here is an overview of the ratings for the Oscars since 1990 from Wikipedia. The ratings peaked with 57 million viewers the year Titanic came out, and has had somewhere in the 30's each of the last four years, so it's in a low streak.
And, coincidentally, the two best-reviewed movies of the year in 2008, based on Top Ten lists, were also the 1st and 5th highest grossing movies of the year: WALL-E and The Dark Knight. Both had some Oscar hype but failed to get nominated, and both would likely have been nominated if there were 10 slots. They were also big budget, ambitious movies that had fans who were really excited about those movies.
It seems pretty clear that this is a response to the decline in ratings and the possibility that its ratings decline has something to do with the fact that the small prestige movies have been getting all the nominations.
I do think the bigger movies are also more likely to win the award with 10. People push for their favorite little movie and put it in the #1 slot on their list when they vote for the nominations, because they want to help it and the big movies already have plenty of attention. Maybe a lot of those people who voted for The Reader and Frost/Nixon for nominations would have voted for The Dark Knight for the actual award if there were more nominees. So, I could see a movie in 6th-10th place for the nominations actually winning for this reason.
You'd also probably have some really unworthy prestige movies sneaking in without living up to their hype: movies like Rachel Getting Married, Doubt, or Che. But then you might have some little movies that deserved it but normally wouldn't have a chance, like Frozen River or Vicky Cristina Barcelona. That would be nice. It could go either way.