BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - The Academy Awards will have 10 best-picture nominees instead of the usual five starting next year, improving the odds for films such as "The Dark Knight," a fan and critic favorite that was snubbed last time.
Doubling the field for Hollywood's top prize will make room for more worthy films and potentially give a jolt to the Oscar TV ratings, Sid Ganis, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, said Wednesday.
The change takes effect with the 82nd Oscar show March 7.
The academy board of governors decided there were more than five films last year that deserved best-picture consideration, Ganis said.
Among those that "were part of the conversation" were the Batman blockbuster "The Dark Knight," along with fellow superhero flick "Iron Man," the animated "WALL-E" and the comedy "Tropic Thunder," Ganis said.
All were huge box-office successes but the sort of movies that rarely make the best-picture cut.
"It's going to give the public the possibility of being more interested in the show this year, just because it might very well include more populist movies," Ganis said. "And because it's 10, not five, there will be a larger group of people who will be interested."
The change caught studio executives and others in Hollywood by surprise. Some said it was a good idea to open the main prize up to more films.
Academy voters often have overlooked "big box-office successes that also were really big artistic successes," said Christine Birch, an academy member and head of marketing for DreamWorks. "Those weren't deemed quote-unquote 'academy' movies. This gives those movies an opportunity to not have to fall by the wayside."
Two of this year's best-reviewed movies, Paramount's sci-fi adventure "Star Trek" and Disney and Pixar Animation's animated tale "Up," now have better odds of best-picture nominations, Birch said.
Publicist Tony Angelotti, who has worked on awards campaigns for such studios as Miramax and Universal, said Oscar voters might stick largely to the sober dramas that typically dominate the best-picture category.
"Academy members vote for the films they like," Angelotti said. "This doesn't change their taste, so the kinds of nominations we've seen the past are probably what we'll see in the future. There's just going to be more of them."
Others said it was impossible to say how it might affect the Oscars, which are awarded by the academy's 5,800 members.
"With a voting body that large, you just can't predict what this means," said Disney spokeswoman Jasmine Madatian, an academy member who oversees the studio's awards campaigns.
Along with animated films, comedies and other blockbusters, Ganis said academy board members hoped the new rules might open the best-picture category to documentaries and foreign-language movies. Animated films, documentaries and foreign-language movies already have their own categories, but they also will be eligible to compete for best picture.
The kinds of films academy members include in the expanded nominations could have a huge effect on the Oscar ratings, which generally have declined over the last decade. The show tends to draw more TV viewers in years when blockbusters are serious contenders for best picture.
The biggest audience ever, 55.2 million viewers, tuned in when "Titanic" won best picture for 1997, according to Nielsen Media Research. The 2003 Oscars, when "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" won, drew 43.5 million viewers, the most in recent years.
Two years ago, when "No Country for Old Men" took top honors, the Oscars had their worst ratings on record, with just 32 million viewers. Ratings rose last February, when "Slumdog Millionaire" won, but the audience of 36.3 million still was modest compared to the show's glory years.
Had there been 10 nominees for last year's films, "The Dark Knight" easily could have made the cut. That likely would have stoked audience interest in the ceremony and could have made the best-picture category more of a horse race, since "The Dark Knight" was one of the year's most acclaimed films.
That could hold true in future years with 10 films in the mix.
"I think it makes the race much more exciting and offers a broader showcase to celebrate and honor the year's most outstanding films," said Sony Pictures spokesman Steve Elzer, an academy member. "Folks who really didn't have a chance to get into the top five will now really rethink whether they can be competitive in that environment."
Studios spend millions on advertising, screenings, DVD mailings and other expenses to position films for awards consideration. Expanding the main event will force studios to decide whether to boost their awards budgets or spread the money among more movies, potentially diluting their investments in the films with the best prospects of winning.
But studios also could ring up more theater and DVD sales, since nominations - and particularly a best-picture win - prompt more people to see Oscar contenders.
"It gives the potential Oscar bounce to five additional films. The fact that they were a best-picture nominee, whether they win or not, that can be a very powerful marketing tool," said Paul Dergarabedian, box-office analyst for Hollywood.com. "There's still only going to be one winner, though. That's the bottom line."