In recent years, and arguably for a very long time, the Academy has been significantly detached from the public consciousness. The movies, and often even the actors that they choose to honor aren't always known to the public. The best picture nominees earlier this year were Slumdog Millionaire, Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, The Reader and Milk. Slumdog Millionaire managed win public favor by pulling on audience heart strings and commenting on serious subjects. Benjamin Button's star cast and director gave it more notoriety than many of its competitors, but the connection between the three other films and public at large was virtually non-existent. Such it has come to be that ten films will be nominated so that well-crafted, big budget, public friendly films have a chance to slide into the running.
The problems goes deeper than those associated with the change in the number of nominees however. Having ten nominees does tarnish the honor of being nominated. It's plain fact that if something is easier to achieve it means less. It's not to say that bad films will get into the ten, but the ninth or tenth nominee is not going to be of the caliber that the others are. Even with five nominees, often you can often eliminate two or three from the running for best picture in making your predictions. In 2006 anyone paying attention knew that the race for best picture was between Crash and Brokeback Mountain. A year in which all five nominees could be potential winners would threaten 1939's title as "the greatest year in film." To suggest that ten films of Academy merrit could come out in a single year is ridiculous and to add nominations just humor the public or public-friendly films borders on insulting. You don't give the unathletic kid a chance at a free throw if he's just going to embarrass himself-- you acknowledge his good qualities elsewhere instead of highlighting his weak points.
To this some might argue "But the nomination is their award"-- to this you can only point to films like The Reader or Benjamin Button that were already in that same situation with only five films. It's their success that is diminished more than anyone else's.
However, as mentioned, the problem is more challenging than the number of nominees. The problem is that the best pictures of the year are seldom nominated for best picture. Adding more slots to placate to the public isn't going to help. This change points to a problem with the academy as a whole. Mainstream films are not considered worthy of nomination in the eyes of the Academy voters, and therefore will never be able to win even with nomination. Of this years best picture nominees, I only saw one-- Slumdog Millionaire. With all honesty and sincerity, setting my fanboy notions aside, I can say that I enjoyed The Dark Knight a hundred times more. Going on RottenTomatoes scores alone, The Dark Knight has a score on par with Milk, and Slumdog Millionare, all three of which barely score better than Frost/Nixon. The remaining two films stand at 22% and 32% lower than their competiters. Hardly the epitome of high quality.
If the Academy wants the public to watch the Academy Awards, if they want the precious ratings they seem to be searching for, they shouldn't be drawing in with empty promises, but making public-approved contenders legitimate. If Star Trek is this year's Dark Knight as I've seen suggested then it should be in the running best picture with four other contenders instead of nine. The "Best movies" and ones "favorite movies" aren't always two different things, and can't be. Continued avoidance of big budget blockbusters in a FIVE FILM RANKING is pretentious snobbery, and so is adding nominees to placate to the public. Films that deserve the title of best picture, and also have a large boxoffice gross are rare but not so rare that one or even two shouldn't be nominated each year.
The Academy's move may have precedence, and it may (though doubtfully) have best interests at heart but it feels disingenuous. If the Academy wants big-budget films, animated films and documentaries to slip into the running they need to acknowledge that those films are better on the whole than some of the traditional fare. No one likes to be patted on the back, or in this case carried on someones shoulders, when they know their work isn't worthy of it.