The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences just released this dramatic statement tonight constituting major changes to the Academy Awards best picture race.  They also announced changes to the best animated picture and visual effects categories.

Best Picture
A film must receive at least 5% first place votes in the nominating process to qualify as one of the 5 to 10 nominees.  This is to ensure films with proper support make the final 10 and if not, there are less than 10 nominees.  The Academy worked with PricewaterhouseCoopers and discovered that if this rule had been in effect between 2001 and 2008 that some years, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 nominees, but not 10.  No one will know how many nominees there are until the nominations are announce on Jan. 24, 2012.

Best Animated Picture
A minimum number of 8 qualifying releases is still required for the category to compete. It gets complex after that.
- If there are 8-12 qualifying features 2 or 3 may be nominated
- If there are 13-15 qualifying features a maximum of 4 may be nominated
- If there are 16 qualifying features a maximum of 5 may be nominated

In the history of the best animated feature category, there have only been five nominees twice, in 2002 and 2009 respectively.  The old rules found only three nominees in the other years since the category debuted in 2001.

Visual Effects
Because there are now five nominees in the visual effect category, the annual "bake off" where qualifying contenders pitch their work to the Academy has increased from 7 to 10 participants.

Additionally, the documentary and documentary short qualification period has been extended to finally have it in line with other awards.  Just for the 84th Academy Awards, the doc qualifying period will be from September 1, 2010 to December 31, 2011.

Analysis
The consequences of these changes will be heard immediately.  This pundit has already heard from two-non journalist industry colleagues waxing, "They shouldn't change it every year."  Obviously, the board of governors sees this as a "correction" to the 10 rule, but was it really necessary?  It won't mean less campaigning, but unless you're planning on turning the nominations into a prime time event (something needed to keep the hype up until the big show), this won't get people up any earlier to watch the announcement on the West Coast.  More likely, members have been grumbling or fearing that another "Blind Side" would find itself among the best picture nominees.  And the possibility of a lack of commercially popular nominees may find ABC executives pulling their hair out just when the show's ratings have been getting back on track.

As for the awards season campaign, the possibility of 10 nominees still makes things intense.  Before, it was clear which 6-7 were in the mix weeks before nomination day.  The big question was who would fill in the final 3-4 slots.  Now, the campaigning might intensify as contenders try to ramp up as much first place votes as they can muster.  If that's the case, the governors may be having second thoughts about this change by January.

As for the animation feature rule clarifications, it means that this year should have a minimum of four nominees.  And considering some of the great films that have gotten left out because of the former rules ("Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs," "Flushed Away," "Despicable Me") that's only a good thing.

The complete and, no joke, historic announcement by the Academy is as follows:

Beverly Hills, CA – The governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voted on Tuesday (6/14) to add a new twist to the 2011 Best Picture competition, and a new element of surprise to its annual nominations announcement.  The Board voted to institute a system that will now produce anywhere between five and 10 nominees in the category.  That number won’t be announced until the Best Picture nominees themselves are revealed at the January nominations announcement.

“With the help of PricewaterhouseCoopers, we’ve been looking not just at what happened over the past two years, but at what would have happened if we had been selecting 10 nominees for the past 10 years,” explained Academy President Tom Sherak, who noted that it was retiring Academy executive director Bruce Davis who recommended the change first to Sherak and incoming CEO Dawn Hudson and then to the governors.

During the period studied, the average percentage of first place votes received by the top vote-getting movie was 20.5.  After much analysis by Academy officials, it was determined that 5% of first place votes should be the minimum in order to receive a nomination, resulting in a slate of anywhere from five to 10 movies.

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

If this system had been in effect from 2001 to 2008 (before the expansion to a slate of 10), there would have been years that yielded 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 nominees.

The final round of voting for Best Picture will continue to employ 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.

Other rules changes approved by the Board include:

In the animated feature film category, the need for the Board to vote to “activate” the category each year was eliminated, though a minimum number of eligible releases – eight – is still required for a competitive category.   Additionally, the short films and feature animation branch recommended, and the Board approved, refinements to the number of possible nominees in the Animated Feature category.  In any year in which eight to 12 animated features are released, either two or three of them may be nominated.  When 13 to 15 films are released, a maximum of four may be nominated, and when 16 or more animated features are released, a maximum of five may be nominated. 

In the visual effects category, 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.

Previously, the Board approved changes to the documentary feature and documentary short category rules that now put those categories’ eligibility periods in line with the calendar year and thus with most other awards categories.  The change means that for the 84th Awards cycle only, the eligibility period is more than 12 months; it is from September 1, 2010 to December 31, 2011.

Other modifications of the 84th Academy Awards rules include normal date changes and minor “housekeeping” changes.

Rules are reviewed annually by individual branch and category committees.  The Awards Rules Committee then reviews all proposed changes before presenting its recommendations to the Academy’s Board of Governors for approval.

The 84th Academy Awards nominations will be announced live on Tuesday, January 24, 2012, at 5:30 a.m. PT in the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater.