Challenging fare means little buzz for best picture



LOS ANGELES — 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 moviegoers have seen neither of them — and they never will — even though they’re the two leading contenders for best picture at the 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 $2.5 million and just crossed the $100 million mark at the box office. It is far and away the most financially successful of the five.)

Four of the movies nominated last week 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. (The sweeping romance “Atonement” dropped slightly.)

Still, they’ve only combined to make about $246.3 million domestically. In contrast, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” already had grossed about $364 million all by itself by the time it won best picture in 2004.

In terms of ticket sales, about 7.3 million people have seen “No Country” and 2 million have seen “There Will Be Blood,” compared with the approximately 51 million who saw the third “Rings” picture in theaters by Oscar night.

“I had someone ask me the other day, ‘Are academy voters 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.”

“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.”