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THE ENVELOPE | BEHIND THE SCREENS | JIM BATES

Movies at their best, but has anyone seen them?

February 01, 2006|JIM BATES

ALL you need to know about how hard it will be to get people to watch the Oscars is that a nominated documentary about penguins has been watched by more moviegoers than any of the five best picture contenders.

Or that four out of five people tuning into the broadcast will not have seen any of those movies in a theater.

Or that roughly only 200,000 people so far have seen Felicity Huffman's Oscar-nominated performance in "Transamerica." That's less than 1% of the weekly viewers who watch her on ABC's "Desperate Housewives."

Call it a triumph of art over commerce. In a year of small but quality films, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has followed its artistic mission to the letter. Or call it a massive disconnect with popular culture, a lineup of blue-state movies playing in a red-state multiplex.

Either way, nominated films box office numbers wouldn't matter if the academy cared only about honoring the industry's best work.

If that were the case, self-congratulatory corks would have popped at 5:45 a.m. Tuesday at the academy's Wilshire Boulevard headquarters, and the $50.9 million it reaped from last year's Oscar show wouldn't have been all that important.

But the fact is that the academy needs the big bucks it gets from the televised beast it created that demands to be fed big ratings. How else will advertisers feel OK paying $1.7 million for a 30-second acid-reflex drug spot that follows the live performance of the nominated song "In the Deep" from best picture candidate "Crash"?

Oscar producers each year try to change the show's format, but are resigned to declaring victory when ratings don't fall. As box-office king "Titanic" showed, big movies are the most reliable guarantee of a big audience.

Last year, about 41.5 million people nationwide watched the Oscars, compared with the record 55 million in 1998 when "Titanic" nearly swept the awards. Consider that, depending on how much their tickets cost (in major cities theaters charge more), only about 6 million to 8 million people saw the top-grossing "Crash," according to box office numbers cruncher Paul Dergarabedian of Exhibitor Relations.

By contrast, he notes, "March of the Penguins" was watched in U.S. theaters by as many as 12 million.

All told, the $187 million cumulatively grossed in the U.S. by the five best picture nominees is the lowest in at least a decade, falling below even the gross of the mildly disappointing "King Kong."

For the Oscars, staging a contest involving films that are good but not so popular is similar to what pro sports face every year. In theory, leagues profess to want every team to have a chance, even though you know that Major League Baseball wants the ratings generated by the New York Yankees, or that the NFL would die to get the Dallas Cowboys back in the hunt. That makes the Seattle Seahawks the "Capote" of this Sunday's Super Bowl.

The Oscar nominations may mirror a year in which Hollywood wrung its hands each week over lower box office numbers, while at the same time turning out what many critics believe was a terrific group of movies.

Maybe this is the year the Oscar producers should throw caution to the wind and really make it a celebration of the films. Forget the obsession with stars. Promote the artistry. Remind people why they like going to the movies instead of watching the latest "countdown" show on a plasma TV.

Unfortunately, the academy will react as it usually does by trying to beef up the lineup with the same stars who are punked by Ashton Kutcher and booked on every talk show to plug their latest films.

Which is all the more reason the show could use a few good penguins.

*

"It is what it is." -- A publicist, preparing for a possibly unpleasant call to a client

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