The Oscars Would Be More Accessible
Ironically, an argument can be made that if the Academy goes back to five nominations, their awards show would be more accessible to the general public. As it stands now, a casual movie fan who wants to catch up on the Best Pictures prior to the telecast would have to make time in their schedule to watch eight movies (assuming they didn't see any of them in theaters), and not all of these are readily available for viewing. Mad Max and The Martian can now be brought home on Blu-ray, but good luck finding showtimes for Room if you live in a small market. It just makes it difficult to see all the nominees ahead of time, which could negatively impact the ceremony's ratings.
Going back to five Best Picture contenders would hopefully make it a little easier. It's a little less daunting a proposition for some audiences, who may not be able to (or be willing to) sit through eight movies. The whole idea of the expanded field was to make things more inclusive, but over the past couple of years, the Academy has nominated more of their kind of film as opposed to some critically acclaimed movies with widespread appeal. In a day and age where going to the movie theater is an expensive proposition, casual viewers have chosen to be more selective about what they go out to see. It's easy to make the case that Star Wars 7 is something that should be seen on the big screen, but a drama like Brooklyn won't feature the same selling points. Which one is a "regular" moviegoer going to actively seek out?
Using this year's field as an example, let's say there were only five nominees: The Revenant, The Big Short, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, and Spotlight. Two of those achieved massive box office success when they were released, meaning a majority of film fans have already seen them, and there are two others currently playing nationwide. That leaves Spotlight as the outlier, as it's only being shown in 985 locations as of this writing. However, it will be available on home media come February, so more people can check it out before the Oscars take place. That's a little more manageable than waiting for three (or possibly five) others to either come to a local theater or hit store shelves.
Whenever people talk about what can be done to fix the Oscars, one popular solution is to "nominate films people have seen," but that's a little disingenuous to the movies that do score Best Picture nods (which are typically of high quality). The Academy isn't going to scour the tops of the box office charts for viable candidates anytime soon, so they can lend a helping hand to the casual viewer who wants to follow the Oscar race by nominating fewer films. Ideally, this would allow the Oscars to appeal to both cinephiles (who visit the awards circuit daily) and the general public, since there would only be a handful of titles everyone had to see to get the full scope of the year's show.
If there is a downside to shrinking the Best Picture field, it's that some smaller films may not get the same kind of boost in awareness. Whiplash made just $13 million at the domestic box office, but it's one of 2014's most beloved movies in part because it was one of the eight candidates for Oscar's top prize. The buzz helped it reach a wider audience. Mainstream moviegoers only truly care about a handful of races - the so-called "major" categories. If Whiplash had to make do with J.K. Simmons as its only representation, would it be as well-known today? Maybe, maybe not.
The flip side is that there still are a number of categories casual viewers follow, including Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Director. In that sense, the Academy helped Room out a lot, since Larson and director Lenny Abrahamson were nominated for their work. More people will be keeping an eye out for it now because of those factors, whether it was a Best Picture player or not (especially since Larson is the presumed frontrunner).
In short, the concept of an expanded Best Picture field was a nice one in theory, but it arguably has not had the intended effects. The Oscars are more confusing and frustrating than they've ever been, which is not the goal here. Going back to five nominations would not instantly make things perfect (particularly because film is subjective), but it might be the best way for the Academy to go.
The Oscars telecast will take place February 28, 2016 on ABC.