Wanted: A happy medium

Award season shows extremes of art, commerce

The awards season increasingly seems to break down into polar extremes.

Summer popcorn movies can count on cleaning up at the People’s Choice and MTV awards — think “Transformers” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” — while specialty darlings like “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood” garner kudos from critics groups.

The Oscars, a race that this season is unusually wide open, raise an intriguing question: Is there a happy medium between art and commerce?

Probably not this time around. 2006’s “The Departed” was a populist favorite that scored at the box office and also won the best pic Oscar. But that double whammy is unlikely to repeat for 2007 pics, since the dozen contenders for the top prize are a more esoteric lot. Their obscurity also doesn’t bode well for the Oscarcast, which seems to thrive on the popularity of the nominees.

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The dichotomy seems surprising but makes fiscal sense. Studios put their money behind specialty pics because they’re the ones that need it. So those films enjoy multiple year-end screenings and screeners as well as parties in their honor as studio execs build buzz that they hope will translate into Oscar gold — and big bucks at the B.O.

Meanwhile, box office successes that were critically well received this year, such as “The Bourne Ultimatum” or the latest in the “Harry Potter” mythology, have generated little awards-consideration buzz.

Neither film would see its bottom line benefit from awards attention, because they’ve already played out at the box office and on DVD.

Concurrent with this trend, the lines have blurred between the main studios and their specialty divisions, meaning the majors’ Oscar hopefuls became such pics as Universal-DreamWorks’ “A Beautiful Mind,” Paramount’s “The Hours” and Warner Bros.’ “Million Dollar Baby” — the “serious” movies on the studios’ slate, but not the “big” movies.

And many of the studios’ “big” films would be hard-pressed to be considered serious best pic contenders. These expensive tentpoles are increasingly being crafted to appeal to the widest possible global audience — more theme-park rides than movies. They’re not the kind of films that get awards attention.

The marriage of art and commerce reached its peak in 1997, when “Titanic” not only set box office records but sailed away with a whopping 11 Oscars — and helped buoy ratings for that year’s telecast to levels not remotely approached since.

Oscar has a long tradition of honoring big popular fare, from “Gone With the Wind” through “The Godfather” and “Forrest Gump.” But, despite recent exceptions like “Gladiator,” “The Lord of the Rings” and “Departed,” that trend has become increasingly rare.

Marketing departments have long used awards to boost box office, releasing pictures late in the year to qualify for a kudos run and ride the wave of interest that can be generated by award noms.

Given the prime summer window for sequels and blockbusters, those mass-appeal pics have exhausted their theatrical run and already made their home-vid splash by the time kudos season rolls around, offering little financial incentive for studios to get behind them.

The studios’ downplay of their crowd-pleasers is a big change from a trend that began in the earliest days of Oscar (“All Quiet on the Western Front,” “Cimarron”) and continued through much of the 1990s. “The Fugitive” in 1993, for example, was the third-highest grossing pic of the year, with $183.9 million at the domestic B.O. It also earned a slot in the best pic category.

Similarly, populist fare ranging from 1980’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to “Out of Africa,” “Ghost,” “A Few Good Men” and 1995’s “Apollo 13” earned boffo B.O. as well as best pic nominations.

“Ghost” was the second highest-grossing film of 1990, with a cume of $217.6 million domestically. By comparison, the films nominated for best picture in 2005 — when “Crash” was anointed best picture — grossed roughly that much combined.

Back in 1977, when the modern blockbuster was in its infancy, “Star Wars” earned a best picture nomination. By contrast, nobody seriously considered the spokes in George Lucas’ recent trilogy as contenders, despite the lines of fans that circled multiplexes.

The result is a perceived schism between movies that keep studios afloat financially and those that win prestige (which can potentially be translated into a higher theatrical take and DVD rentals).

The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern addressed this point in his year-end analysis, which, like many critics’ 10-best lists, was heavily populated by smaller pictures — a factor he attributed more to the trends shaping moviemaking than to design.

“In the ever-more threatening business of making films — developing scripts, finding money, fighting off those who understand nothing and want to change everything — little movies like these … have the best shot at surviving the process unscathed,” he wrote.

That’s not to say that modern commercial hits have been abandoned by studio awards consultants or Academy voters.

Last year’s winner, Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed,” found the sweet spot between artistic and commercial recognition. But that was the exception. Among the other films nominated last year, Clint Eastwood’s “Letters From Iwo Jima” grossed $13 million domestically, “Babel” earned roughly $34 million and “The Queen” just $28 million domestically.

“Little Miss Sunshine” grossed $60 million domestically and became one of the top specialty hits of all time, though there remains a vast difference in expectations between such titles and the aforementioned blockbusters.

Studios can still balance big-scale production values with specialty-film sensibility, though the number of movies able to navigate that space seems to be shrinking.

Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster” got good notices and has grossed $127.7 million to date domestically. Other contenders have impressive scope and production values, but don’t easily fall into the “popcorn” category, including “Atonement,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Michael Clayton,” “No Country,” “Charlie Wilson’s War,” et al.

And the popcorn titles are struggling to get attention, especially sequels. Few are banking on “Bourne,” despite its popularity and rave reviews, or Disney’s innovative princess tale “Enchanted,” which has grossed more than $114 million since its Thanksgiving release.

Whatever the cause, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and ABC usually pay a price when nominees have gone largely unseen by the public. Oscarcast ratings traditionally dip in years when the ultimate best picture winner isn’t a major attraction — in stark contrast to the 55 million viewers that tuned in to see “Titanic’s” coronation. The Oscars averaged fewer than 39 million viewers when “Crash” won two years ago, ticking upward slightly, to not quite 40 million, last year.

The gap between quality and commercial appeal has been apparent not just at the Oscars but the Emmys as well, where strong showings by relatively little-seen cable series (or network programs, in the case of Fox’s “Arrested Development”) have coincided with a decline in viewers.

The Golden Globes buck this trend by doubling the number of awards in some categories into drama and musical-comedy. This has led to a dozen best-movie nominees this year and often results in a flow of marquee names (Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie, among others, for the latest go-round) that lend glitter to its presentation.