Pics score nine nominations each

photos/_storypics/oscars_tenpictures.jpg align=”center”>

Anne Hathaway and AMPAS prexy Tom Sherak unveiled the 82nd annual Academy Award nominations this morning in Los Angeles.

Main story | Nominees list | Reactions | Scorecard | Gallery | Oscar observations | Did 10 noms add up? | Oscar push for pics | Award Central

The 82nd Academy Award nominations offered more crowdpleasers than usual in the expanded best-film category, while Oscar newcomers dominated in the major races.

“Avatar” and “The Hurt Locker” were at the top of the nominations tallies, with nine each, in a roster of 10 best-pic contenders that encompassed box office hits on a wider scale than it had in recent years.

The 10 best-picture nominees have collectively earned more than $3.5 billion — a sharp contrast to last year, when the five contenders had collectively earned about $227 million worldwide at the time of nominations.

The current numbers make this the highest-grossing group of contenders ever, which sounds impressive but requires a few footnotes: Twentieth Century Fox’s B.O. champ “Avatar” alone accounts for $2 billion, while the rest of the mega-sum comes from Disney-Pixar’s “Up,” the Weinstein Co.’s “Inglourious Basterds,” Sony Pictures’ “District 9″ and Warner Bros.’ “The Blind Side.” And, of course, since this is the first time since 1943 that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences nominated 10 pics, direct comparisons are impossible.

As for the newcomers, Summit Entertainment marks an auspicious debut to the Oscar race with its nine noms for “The Hurt Locker.” Other new companies include Apparition, which earned four bids, and Oscilloscope Laboratories, with three.

First timers

But it’s the individual first-timers in other races that are especially prominent.

Four pics in the top race include producers receiving their first Oscar bids,representing half of Tuesday’s roster of the eight films whose producing credits were finalized. (The credits of two of the best-pic contenders, “The Hurt Locker” and “Blind Side,” have yet to be determined.)

Other notable newcomers include three directors: Lee Daniels (“Precious”) on his second film; Jason Reitman (“Up in the Air”), his second nom in only three films; and Kathryn Bigelow (“Hurt Locker”), her first nom. Bigelow and Daniels also helped make Oscar history in other ways (see separate story).

Among the field of writers, it’s not just their first Oscar attention but their relative newness to the field that’s notable. That’s true of all the contenders in adapted screenplay: Geoffrey Fletcher (“Precious”) for his first script; “Up in the Air’s” Jason Reitman (his second) and Sheldon Turner (third); Nick Hornby (“An Education”), second screenplay, though other pics have been based on his novels; Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell (“District 9″), their first feature script; and “In the Loop’s” quartet of Jesse Armstrong (third feature script), Simon Blackwell (second), Armando Iannucci and Tony Roche (their first), though all four are TV veterans.

The original screenplay nominees include Mark Boal (“Hurt Locker”) for his second script; “The Messenger’s” Oren Moverman (his fifth) and Alessandro Camon (his second); and “Up’s” Bob Peterson (his second nom, after “Finding Nemo,” on only his third feature script) and Tom McCarthy (his third script and first nom).

Twelve of the 20 actors cited earned their first Oscar noms, including four of the five supporting actresses.

With nine noms each, “Avatar” and “The Hurt Locker” led the field, followed by eight for the Weinstein Co.’s “Inglourious Basterds.” Those pics will compete for best film along with “The Blind Side” (Warner Bros.), “District 9″ (Sony), “An Education” (Sony Pictures Classics), “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” (Lionsgate), “A Serious Man” (Focus Features), “Up” (Disney-Pixar) and “Up in the Air” (Paramount in association with Cold Spring Pictures and DW Studios).

Rob Friedman, co-chairman and CEO of Summit Entertainment, said he was “excited to be in the race” with “Hurt Locker.” The business plan of the company, formed in April 2007, was always centered on doing wide releases for commercial fare and never had awards as a mandate, said Friedman, “but we always wanted to be involved in serious fare, movies we loved to work on.”

The exec said that after acquiring “Hurt Locker” at the 2008 Toronto fest, “Our thinking was always to build a wave of support to battle the inertia that affected most movies in this situation” — i.e., Iraq-themed films. “We just wanted it to get the attention that we felt it deserved,” he said.

James Cameron was honoring a speaking engagement Tuesday but “Avatar” producer Jon Landau said in a statement, “To receive these accolades from the members of the Academy is more than we could have imagined. We are truly grateful and are also thrilled for the technical people who are being recognized for their artistic achievements, as this demonstrates what a huge team effort it took from so many talented people to make this movie.”

The foreign-language category runs the gamut from “The Milk of Sorrow,” which marks Peru’s first Oscar nom, to “Un Prophete,” which is the 36th for France. The others are “El secreto de sus ojos” (The Secret in Their Eyes, from Argentina, its sixth), “Ajami” (Israel, its ninth), and “The White Ribbon” (Germany, with eight previous since unification in 1990, and nine earlier total for West and East Germany). There were 65 films deemed eligible for this category.

One of the most interesting races this year is animated feature, with its many strong contenders. The Academy mandates five noms when there are 16 or more eligible films, and the five finalists embrace all toon styles: stop-motion (Focus Features’ “Coraline,” Fox’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox”), cel animation (Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog,” GKIDS’”The Secret of Kells”) and CGI (Disney-Pixar’s “Up,” also a best pic contender).

New Disney studio topper Rich Ross was excited about all the noms, but admitted, “My favorite is the screenplay nomination for ‘Up,’ because it’s a reminder that animation is about story and character, not just visuals. And the Academy is not segregating ‘Up’ but recognizing it along with the biggest pictures of the year.” He praised the nominations, as well as the year in general, for their “great range, with so many terrific films; it’s a great body of work.”

Oscar bellwethers so far are sending mixed messages, as “Hurt Locker” won with the DGA (for Bigelow) and got the Producers Guild nod, though the Golden Globes honored “Avatar” and “The Hangover.” (Interestingly, all five Globe contenders for best drama made the cut Tuesday, but not one of the five comedy/musical nominees wound up in Oscar’s top 10.)

In Oscar’s world, the film with the most nominations has ended up winning the best picture prize in 14 of the last 20 years. However, the tides are turning: For four of the past five years, the noms leader did not win: “The Aviator,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Dreamgirls” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” lost to, respectively, “Million Dollar Baby,” “Crash,” “The Departed” and “Slumdog Millionaire.” (The exception was “No Country for Old Men,” which won after tying “There Will Be Blood” with eight noms.)

Some pundits might assume that the directors race is a clue to which films, among the 10 pic contenders, were the top five vote-getters. But that’s not necessarily true. Ever since the Acad pared the pic race to five nominees in 1944, there have only been a handful of years when there was a five-for-five correlation of pic and director: 1957, 1964, 1981, 2005 and 2008. But it’s interesting that the director crop this year matches the Directors Guild nominations. Because the two groups have different voters (366 in the Academy’s directors branch vs. 14,000 in the DGA), they have been an exact match only a handful of times since 1970.

Every helming nominee saw his or her film in the top race, and eight of the best pic contenders saw their screenplays nominated (“Avatar” and “The Blind Side” missed out).

Tally two-step

As for distributors, that tally is nearly impossible these days, due to split-rights deals, overseas distribution vs. domestic, etc. Nearly every nom deserves an asterisk. Sony Pictures Classics earned 13, tying its company record of 2001 (the year of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). Sony counts 18 noms for itself, but that number includes Sony Classics’ tally. The Weinstein Co. also earned 13, with eight of those for “Inglourious Basterds,” which was a co-production with Universal. So do both distribs get to count the eight noms? Should Searchlight be counted with Fox? “Up in the Air” is Paramount in association with Cold Spring Pictures and DW Studios, but “Star Trek” is Paramount and Spyglass Entertainment, while “Lovely Bones” is DreamWorks in association with Film4, distributed by Paramount. So is that three separate categories for Par? We’ll let the studios slug it out.

The nominations were announced Tuesday morning at 5:38 a.m. by Academy prexy Tom Sherak and Anne Hathaway.

Final ballots will be mailed Feb. 10 and are due back at PricewaterhouseCoopers offices on Tuesday, March 2. Awards will be presented March 7 at the Kodak Theater in rites produced by Adam Shankman and Bill Mechanic and hosted by Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin.

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more