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Best-picture race lands outside the mainstream

All five candidates for the top Oscar have been seen by fewer moviegoers than any batch of best-picture nominees in 20 years

Associated Press

Los Angeles — By the numbers, the Academy Awards are roughly 50 per cent less relevant than they have been the last five years.

While all five candidates for the top Oscar have managed respectable ticket sales, they collectively have been seen by fewer moviegoers than any batch of best-picture nominees in 20 years.

For the first time since the 1997 Titanic juggernaut, no blockbuster is in the mix, and it's the first time in 15 years without at least one $100-million (U.S.) hit among the best-picture contenders going into the Oscars.

By Sunday, a week before the Oscars, the domestic gross should total about $315-million for The Aviator, Million Dollar Baby, Ray, Sideways and Finding Neverland.

A year ago, best-picture candidates had grossed $696-million a week before the Oscars.

This year's five nominees have sold about 51 million tickets, down 50 per cent or more from each of the previous five years, when admissions for the best-picture field ranged from 100 million to 118 million.

Audiences for the five top Oscar picks have not been this small since the 1984 awards, when Amadeus won best picture. Amadeus and its rivals — Places in the Heart, The Killing Fields, A Passage to India and A Soldier's Story — had been seen by about 41 million people.

This is not just an exercise in pointless arithmetic. Executives at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences know from experience that a hugely popular film leading the best-picture race helps attract viewers for the Oscar telecast, whose ratings have been in a funk over the last five years.

“We don't have a Titanic or a Lord of the Rings out there. I think it's fair to say it does concern us a bit,” said Bruce Davis, the academy's executive director.

The Oscars drew their biggest audience ever when Titanic won the 1997 best-picture prize. Going into Oscar night, Titanic had grossed nearly a half-billion dollars on its way to a $600 million domestic haul and $1.8-billion worldwide payday.

A year ago, the largest audience in four years tuned in to see the academy crown $377-million sensation The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King as best picture.

“Eyeballs staring at the movie screen translates to eyeballs staring at the TV screen,” said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations. “People like to have a vested interest in what they're watching. When Titanic does $1.8-billion in worldwide box office, you've got a lot of people out there with a vested interest.”

Edging toward $90-million, The Aviator leads this year's roster, followed by Ray, which topped out at about $75-million and is now on home video. Million Dollar Baby, Sideways and Finding Neverland are in the $45-million to $55-million range.

The last three years, there has been a Lord of the Rings megahit competing. Other past blockbuster contenders included Gladiator, The Sixth Sense, Saving Private Ryan, Forrest Gump and Ghost.

“This is an unusual year in that there's not a blockbuster in the mix,” said Steve Gilula, head of distribution for Fox Searchlight, which released Sideways.

The big hits of 2004 included Shrek 2, Spider-Man 2 and The Incredibles, but they were lighter flicks that never drew much best-picture buzz. And liberal-minded Hollywood did not give serious best-picture consideration to the religious blockbuster The Passion of the Christ.

The feature-animation competition arguably could be called the real best-picture competition for mainstream movie fans.

At $436-million, Shrek 2 far out-grossed the entire best-picture lineup combined. Add in The Incredibles ($259-million) and Shark Tale ($160-million), and the three animated nominees did more than 2½ times the business of the five best-picture contestants.

The Oscars, though, are not necessarily a place for popular sentiment, often singling out small films such as this year's Vera Drake or Being Julia for key nominations.

“I have never equated the Academy Awards with how much money a movie takes in,” said Nikki Rocco, head of distribution for Universal, which released Ray. “That's the People's Choice Awards. This is not about the public. This is about the industry bestowing its awards on what they think are the best films of the year.”

When a major commercial hit such as Titanic or Return of the King does triumph, it's because critical and popular appeal happen to coalesce.

“If you look at the movies this time, they're not the big special-effects type of movies that usually gross those type of numbers,” said Mike Rudnitsky, head of distribution for Miramax, which released The Aviator and Finding Neverland.

“They're intelligent scripts with tremendous performances. No matter what the box office, it's the quality of the films when it comes to the Oscars.”

Critics take potshots at the Oscars regardless of how the nominations pan out, academy director Davis said.

In years when commercial hits dominate, Oscar voters are accused of pandering to popular taste, Davis said. When smaller films prevail, the academy is criticized for being out of step with the mainstream, he said.

The studios behind the top nominees this time say the lineup is a victory for artistic merit.

“I think it's a tribute to members of the academy,” said Dan Fellman, head of distribution for Warner Bros., which released Million Dollar Baby. “They vote with their hearts, not looking at the box office.”

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