LOS ANGELES If any of the frontrunners for the best film Oscar win the world's top movie award in nine days, the idea that voters are out of touch with mainstream movie fans may be over after two years of trying.
For that, Oscar owes a big "thank you" to Batman and Clint Eastwood. Or, to director Christopher Nolan and his 2008 Batman movie "The Dark Knight," and Eastwood with his feature "Gran Torino," neither of which was even nominated for the best film of 2008 despite being popular hits.
In each of the movie years 2009 and 2010, when Academy Award organizers doubled the number of best film nominees to 10 from five, the combined box office for the nominees was bigger than the total of all 15 contenders in the three years before.
The 10 nominees of 2010 have accounted for nearly $1.3 billion in U.S. and Canadian ticket sales, and for 2009, it was $1.7 billion. In each of 2008, 2007 and 2006, it was $354 million, $357 million and $296 million, respectively.
"Popular movies and Academy voters have come together in this perfect storm of events, and it's nice to see that," said Paul Dergarabedian, head of box office tracker Hollywood.com.
In 2008, mainstream movie fans complained loudly that Oscar voters were out of touch. At that time, it seemed as if almost every nominee for best film came mostly from art houses or were specialty films, such as "The Reader" or "Milk."
That year, Nolan's "The Dark Knight" was a hit with critics and the No. 1 film at domestic box offices with $533 million. "Gran Torino" similarly was a 2008 smash hit. But neither was nominated for best movie, raising hackles from fans.
The best picture Oscar winner for 2008, "Slumdog Millionaire," took in $141 million. But of the other four nominees, only "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" could top $100 million.
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The next year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences raised the number of nominees to broaden the pool of contenders, and five films topped the magic $100 million, led by smash hit "Avatar" with $761 million. The list included "Up" at $293 million and "The Blind Side" at $256 million.
For 2010, four films -- "Toy Story 3," Nolan's "Inception," "True Grit," and "Black Swan" -- have crossed $100 million and "The King's Speech" ($96 million) will likely do so.
"The Social Network" ($97 million) is close and a sixth, "The Fighter" at $86 million, will easily top $90 million.
Dergarabedian reckons two factors were at work. One is the widening of the best film category, and the second is that no one movie dominated box offices through Hollywood's award season which, generally speaking, begins in November.
"That left opportunity for these films to become mainstream hits," Dergarabedian said.
The Academy and TV network ABC couldn't be happier because more popular films, traditionally, mean more TV viewers for the Academy Awards ceremony.
Indeed, last year's TV audience of 41 million was the highest in five years. Ironically, the biggest box office hit of that group of films, "Avatar" lost best movie to one of the lowest performers, war film "The Hurt Locker" ($17 million).
But in this second year of change, the frontrunner for best film, "The King's Speech," is both a critical and popular hit, as are "Social Network", "Inception", "Toy Story 3", "True Grit", "The Fighter" and "Black Swan."
(Editing by Jill Serjeant)