In a dramatic switch and clear populist play aimed at higher ratings, the Academy has instituted a merit-based system that will generate anywhere from five to 10 contenders in Oscar’s prestige best picture category.

The measure delivers an emphatic statement in the early stages of Dawn Hudson’s tenure as CEO following the reshuffle in April.

It is understood outgoing executive director Bruce Davis recommended the change first to president Tom Sherak and Hudson and subsequently to the governors. The board approved the measure on Tuesday night [14].

The number of nominees for any given year will not be announced until the best picture nominees are revealed at the January nominations announcement.

In a press release issued late last night the Academy explained that “the final round of voting for best picture would continue to use 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.”

The move comes after the Academy enlisted the help of PricewaterhouseCoopers to project how the recent introduction of 10 nominees might have impacted and benefited from voting patterns among membership had it been in place for a decade.

“In studying the data, what stood out was that Academy members had regularly shown a strong admiration for more than five movies,” Davis said. “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.”

According to the press release, had the new merit-based protocol been in effect from 2001 to 2008 (prior to the expansion to 10 nominees), there would have been years that yielded five, six, seven, eight and nine nominees.

  • In other changes, the board viewed animated features and ruled that it was no longer necessary for the board to activate the category; the category was active as long as a minimum of eight films were released in a year. If eight to 12 come out in a year that yields two to three nominees; 13-15 releases leads to four and 16 or more results in a maximum of five.
  • In the visual effects category, the release said “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.”

The 84th Academy Awards nominations will be announced on Jan 24, 2012. The awards ceremony is scheduled for Feb 26, 2012.