Academy publicist Leslie Unger just sent out a release with the headline "ACADEMY BUILDS SURPRISE INTO BEST PICTURE RULES" -- and she's not kidding.

Here's what it says:

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"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....

"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 [retiring Academy executive director Bruce] 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 Academy will still use the recently adopted weighted voting system "to ensure that the winning picture has the endorsement of more than half of the voters."

In other news, the animated feature film category will be automatically included whenever the number of Oscar-eligible releases is eight. "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."

The "short list" for the visual effects category "will expand from seven to 10 contenders." As in the last awards, the number of films nominated from the short list will be five.

For this year only the eligibility period for documentaries runs from September 1, 2010 to December 31, 2011; in 2012 and beyond, the eligibility period will simply be the calendar year.

The nominations will be announced live on Tuesday, January 24, 2012, in the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater (here's what the announcement looked like this year) -- and the show goes on Sunday, February 26, 2012.

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