Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Blocked-Busters

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Blocked-Busters

Article excerpt

Here's what some of the nominees for best picture aren't.

"Marvel's The Avengers" ($623 million domestic gross box office). "The Dark Knight Rises" ($448 million). "The Hunger Games" ($408 million). "Skyfall" ($297 million). "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" ($264 million).

Popcorn movies, they're sometimes called. Blockbusters. Not the sort of prestige pictures that, traditionally, are top nominees for Oscars.

Except that the entire Academy Awards system was overhauled, three years ago, precisely to make room for them -- alongside the kind of high-end movies that have traditionally dominated the Oscars.

Nine best-picture candidates were announced Thursday: "Amour," "Argo," "Lincoln," "Beasts of the Southern Wild," "Les Miserables," "Django Unchained," "Life of Pi," "Silver Linings Playbook" and "Zero Dark Thirty." Not a superspy, superhero or hobbit in the bunch.

The Academy, which used to nominate only five best pictures, can now nominate up to 10. "Having 10 best-picture nominees is going to allow Academy voters to recognize and include some of the fantastic movies that often show up in the other Oscar categories, but have been squeezed out of the race for the top prize," Sid Ganis, then the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, said in 2010.

Much has been made of this year's Oscar snubs: Critical darling "The Master" didn't place for best picture; Ben Affleck ("Argo"), Kathryn Bigelow ("Zero Dark Thirty"), and Tom Hooper ("Les Miserables") were ignored in the best-director category. But few have mentioned the larger omission, which goes to the heart of what the Oscars are -- now -- supposed to be about.

The 2010 rule change, which was meant to enlarge the field for popcorn movies with broad popularity but little snob appeal, came after "The Dark Knight" and "WALL-E" were snubbed in the top category in 2009.

The change was also driven by economics. Since more people have seen blockbusters -- it was argued -- they'd be more likely to feel invested in the Oscar contest. Thus, they'd be more likely to tune into the awards ceremony -- whose sagging ratings, from 55 million viewers in 1998 to just 32 million 10 years later, also prompted overhauls in the show's format, and a succession of newer, younger, often less successful hosts (this year, Feb. 24, it will be "Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane). Billy Crystal's return as host last year boosted the ratings slightly to 39 million, up from the 2011 disaster of Anne Hathaway and James Franco that drew fewer than 38 million.

Of this year's nominees, "Django Unchained," alone, might be considered a bit of a mass-appeal hit -- though Quentin Tarantino also has an established highbrow following ("Pulp Fiction" was nominated in 1995, before the new 10-picture rule went into effect). The other eight films are exactly the kind of "prestige" and "art" pictures that the Academy always nominates: "Lincoln," "Les Miserables," "Life of Pi. …

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