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Oscar films are box-office poison
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One film has an oblique ending that's left some viewers dissatisfied and others floored by its profundity. The other features a slowly developing plot and a brutal, operatically violent finale.

No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood are both gorgeous and bold, expertly crafted and intelligently acted. But most movie goers have seen neither of them-and never will-even though they're the two leading contenders for best picture at this year's Academy Awards.

Oscar-nominated films are often small, dark and unintended for mass audiences; they're about art, after all, not commerce. But that's especially true of this year's crop, which has little mainstream buzz and among the lowest box-office totals in recent years.

The exception, of course, is the crowd-pleasing comedy Juno, starring the hugely appealing Ellen Page as a quick-witted, pregnant teen. It had a budget of about US$2.5 million and just crossed the US$100 million mark at the box office. It is far and away the most financially successful of the five.

Ticket sales

Four of the movies nominated for best picture-Juno, Michael Clayton, No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood-got the so-called Oscar bump that comes from audiences checking them out the following weekend.

Still, in total they have made only about US$246.3 million in the United States. In contrast, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King had already grossed about US$364 million when it won best picture in 2004.

In terms of ticket sales, about 7.3 million people have seen No Country and two million have seen There Will Be Blood, compared with about 51 million who saw the third Rings picture by Oscar night.

"Someone asked me the other day if academy voters are out of touch in honoring these films that aren't popular with audiences," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box-office tracker Media By Numbers. "But they're not supposed to be popular. They're honoring the cinematic merit of these films. (Or else) 'Spider-Man 3' would have the most nominations.

"I always say it's either cinematic fast food or cinematic fine dining-you pick what you want," Dergarabedian added. "And Oscar tends to honor the films that give a cinematic fine-dining experience."

The 2006 nominees did a bit better with a cumulative gross of about US$297 million, thanks largely to the winner The Departed, which ended up with more than US$132 million. The Departed also had a revered director in Martin Scorsese and an all-star cast including Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Jack Nicholson.

The nominees from 2005 combined for about US$245 million with the winner, the ensemble drama Crash, making only about US$55 million. But that year had huge buzz thanks to Brokeback Mountain, the gay cowboy romance, which had America talking regardless of their interest in art-house films. The perceived front-runner until the moment the envelope was opened, it made US$83 million.

But it's not just the contenders in the best picture category that are drawing specialized crowds. Michael Clayton is the only film with multiple acting nominations: for its star, George Clooney, and supporting actors Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton. The suspenseful corporate thriller from first-time director Tony Gilroy has made a decent US$41.5 million.

Away From Her, which has made a best-actress front-runner of Julie Christie as a wife suffering from Alzheimer's disease, made just under US$16 million in limited release last year. La Vie en Rose, the Edith Piaf biopic, has grossed only about US$10 million, despite a wildly heralded performance from best-actress nominee Marion Cotillard.

The languid Western "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," with its creepy, nuanced supporting turn from nominee Casey Affleck, hasn't even made US$4 million. And the experimental I'm Not There, which features six different people playing various incarnations of Bob Dylan-including supporting-actress nominee Cate Blanchett-made about US$3.5 million in its limited run.

"They're not simple fare," said Boo Allen, a Dallas-based film critic and historian.

"The average moviegoer might hear that Brad Pitt is playing Jesse James, then they hear from someone who's seen it that it's two and a half hours long and very slow. It's more of a character study than a shoot 'em up, and it just doesn't touch a nerve," said Allen, who chose La Vie en Rose as his favorite film this season. "Something like Juno, that touches a nerve. You hear people say it's funny, it's about a teenager who gets pregnant. Jennifer Garner's in it, Jason Bateman's in it, the little girl's really funny. That lends itself to word of mouth and draws people in."

While they haven't exactly been huge in terms of box office, this year's contenders are strong in terms of art. Veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins, who's up for two Oscars for No Country and Jesse James, compared the nominees to the kinds of films that pushed boundaries in the 1970s.

"It's one of the best years because there's so many intelligent films that are provocative. They're actually about something as well as being entertaining," said Deakins, the longtime collaborator with the Coen brothers, who has also been nominated for the more mainstream The Shawshank Redemption.

"It really makes you feel part of a real cinema," he added. "There's brilliant, brilliant people out there."

(Shanghai Daily February 3, 2008)

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