Best Picture Oscar Race 2016
Peter O’Toole for Variety

The stage is set for a David vs. Goliath battle at the 88th Academy Awards.

In one corner are the Goliath box office hits that Oscarcast viewers have heard of — and maybe even seen: This year’s top three on the nominations tally are Fox’s “The Revenant” (12 noms), Warner Bros.’ “Mad Max: Fury Road” (10) and Fox’s “The Martian” (seven).

Together, they’ve amassed over $1.2 billion at the global box office.

In the other corner are the likes of Fox Searchlight’s “Brooklyn,” which was acquired at Sundance and had a production budget of $11 million, and A24’s “Room,” which is the first best picture nominee for the emerging studio.

Together, they’ve made just over $40 million at the domestic box office (though neither one is close to finished, especially with three weeks to go until the Oscars).

Blockbuster Oscar winners such as “Rocky” and “Titanic” have given way to indie fare such as “The Hurt Locker” and “Birdman.” Courtesy of 20th Century Fox/Universal

Moving up a rung, but still firmly in the David column, Open Road’s “Spotlight” and Paramount’s “The Big Short” (a rare adult drama released by a major studio) were both made for under $30 million, their combined budgets not even equal to half of any one of their Goliath rivals.

Disney’s “Bridge of Spies” is the tweener, grossing more than $160 million worldwide on a reported $40 million budget. It’s not exactly a small-scale project, but it’s not the sort of mass appeal hit Oscar voters have recently turned their back on either.

In the past decade, a few genuine blockbusters reliably snuck into the top category, like “Avatar,” “Inception” and “Toy Story 3.” But in general, Oscar has been looking to more modest, personal films, like “The Hurt Locker,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The King’s Speech” and “The Artist,” for the win.

Box office is not necessarily a valid measurement of quality, but ever since the Academy Awards began in 1927, voters included many crowd favorites — not as a reward for the B.O., but as recognition that it’s extremely difficult to create work that is “only” entertaining. Oscar’s best picture nominees for the first 75 years include such classics as the 1933 Mae West movie “She Done Him Wrong” and “The Thin Man” (1934).

Since the rise of blockbusters in the ’70s we’ve seen best pictures including “The Sting” (1973), “Rocky” (1976), “Rain Man” (1988), “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991), “Forrest Gump” (1994), “Titanic” (1997), “Gladiator” (2000) and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (2003). And countless nominees from “Star Wars” (1977) to “The Fugitive” (1993), that scored big with audiences but aren’t traditional awards fodder.

“Just getting three populist hits on the best picture list this year is a bit unusual given the way nominations have been trending in the past decade.”

In the past 15 years, voters have shifted decidedly against popcorn movies, in favor of smaller, more “serious” films. Last year, “Birdman” had earned less than $30 million when Oscar nominations were announced. The Fox Searchlight release ultimately soared to $103 million worldwide, some of it after the Oscar win, while its closest rival, “Boyhood,” wound up at $44 million global. (The unlikely blockbuster in the race — Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper”
— went on to become the highest-grossing film of 2014, but it didn’t actually open in wide release until the day after the noms were announced.)

Just getting three populist hits on the best picture list this year is a bit unusual given the way nominations have been trending in the past decade, as voters lavished more and more attention on films from indies or the studios’ specialty/niche divisions.

For example, when Oscar nominations for the films of 2005 were announced, all five best picture contenders (“Crash,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Capote,” “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “Munich”) trailed the box office take of one of the nominated documentaries (“March of the Penguins”). Strange times, indeed.

After “The Dark Knight” was shut out of the 2008 race in favor of limited appeal specialty fare like “Milk,” “Frost/Nixon” and “The Reader,” the Acad made the dramatic move to double the number of best pic nominees from five to 10.

Since then we’ve definitely seen more hits included (like 2009’s “Up,” “District 9” and “The Blind Side”) but also a number of high-profile snubs like “Skyfall,” “Frozen” and “Bridesmaids.” This year, there was similar buzz around “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Inside Out.” They may not be traditional “awards movies,” but they were unbeatable for sheer enjoyment. And yet none made the cut.

But let’s go back to 2009. That year could go down as the prototypical David-vs-Goliath scenario, when Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” faced off against James Cameron’s “Avatar.”

Boffo (and Not So Boffo) B.O.
Best picture champs have historically also been box office hits, until recent years.
$377m The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
$42m Birdman (2014)
$17m The Hurt Locker (2009)

When Cameron’s “Titanic” broke box office records in 1997, it only helped cement its 11 Oscar victories against well-regarded but comparatively puny rivals “L.A. Confidential” and “Good Will Hunting.”

But 12 years later it was a different story. “Avatar” may have dominated the box office, but scrappy little critics fave “Hurt Locker” had no trouble taking it out to became the lowest-grossing best picture winner of the modern era.

Looking back, it feels like the beginning of a sea change (although the roots may have been in that aforementioned “Crash” victory).

Year after year, smaller pictures have trumped their behemoth competition. “The King’s Speech” bumped off “Toy Story 3” and “Inception.” “The Artist” took out “Hugo” and “The Help.” “Argo” trumped “Life of Pi,” “Les Miserables” and “Django Unchained.” “12 Years a Slave” defeated “Gravity” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.” And, of course, “Birdman” shot down “Sniper” (after Eastwood’s picture was firmly established as a smash).

These days, all the momentum seems to be with David. It almost feels like a curse to be the Goliath in the race.

And so the question looms over the best picture competition this year: Can either of the Golden Globe winners, “The Martian” or “The Revenant,” take out PGA pick “The Big Short”? Or does critics fave and SAG ensemble honoree “Spotlight” sneak into the, well, spotlight?

Is “Mad Max: Fury Road” too quirky for the win? Is “Brooklyn” too small? “Room” too intimate? And does “Bridge of Spies” have a chance if it’s neither David nor Goliath?

It’s never easy to parse the Oscar tea leaves, but come Feb. 29 there will be plenty of Monday morning quarterbacks proclaiming they knew it all along.

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