LOS ANGELES — It's been a quiet Academy Awards season — maybe too quiet for Oscar planners worried that Hollywood's annual dress-up ball will follow other entertainment awards shows into TV Apathy Land.
The movies have not caught the public's eye in a big way. There is no huge best-picture front-runner for fans to rally behind. Even Hollywood studios, whose executives might sell their first-born to win an Oscar, generally have kept a lid on their brazen awards campaigning, leaving no juicy gossip to spice up the season.
The Oscars already had been on a general ratings decline in recent years before their cousins — the Emmys, the Grammys, the Tonys and the Golden Globes — fell into the ratings dump.
The big issue Sunday night is not so much whether "Million Dollar Baby" or "The Aviator" takes best picture, but whether the grandpappy of awards shows still can find an audience. And if it can, whether people will like what they see.
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"More suspense clouds are looming over this Oscar show than any other, and it's not about who's going to win," said Tom O'Neil, author of the book "Movie Awards."
Low ratings for awards shows
The most recent Emmys, Grammys and Golden Globes all took huge ratings tumbles, and last June's Tonys drew 6.5 million viewers, the smallest audience ever for Broadway's biggest night — a sign that audiences might be growing fatigued by the endless parade of awards shows.
That trend coincides with the comparatively modest ticket sales for this year's five best-picture nominees, which lack a certified blockbuster for the first time in seven years and a $100 million hit for the first time in 15 years. The lineup has been seen by fewer people than any batch of best-picture contenders in 20 years.
Usually, fewer fans of the films means fewer people tuning in for the Oscars. The show's biggest audience came when box-office behemoth "Titanic" won the 1997 best-picture prize. Last year's triumph of monster hit "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" hooked more viewers than any Oscar broadcast in four years.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and Oscar show producer Gil Cates have taken steps to jazz up the show, which has dragged on for an interminable four hours some years.
A piece of the Rock
After a decade under the safely comfortable hand of such masters of ceremonies as Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg and Steve Martin, the Oscars this time feature Chris Rock as host. Rock already has mouthed off that awards shows are "idiotic," though he has hinted he will play nice during the show. Some viewers might tune in hoping he plays bad boy, instead.
Cates also dreamed up a new way to present certain awards other than the familiar winner's march to the podium. To save time, some Oscars will be presented to winners in the audience. In other cases, all the nominees will be herded on stage beauty-pageant style, with losers standing by while the winner prattles on cheerily.
"Whether that's going to turn out to be intensely uncomfortable for four sets of nominees who don't step forward, and make us all so uncomfortable in our turn that we don't ever want to do this again, remains to be seen," said Bruce Davis, the academy's executive director.
Davis related a chat he had with a contender at this year's Oscars who has been nominated in the past and lost. According to Davis, the nominee's take on the new awards style: "Let me tell you, your seat is a very comfortable place to sink down in while you let all the attention go to the person on the stage. The idea of standing up there in the background, it's a little intimidating."
The movies themselves almost seem like afterthoughts given the behind-the-scenes drama.
‘Aviator’ vs. ‘Baby’
Martin Scorsese's Howard Hughes epic "The Aviator" and Clint Eastwood's boxing drama "Million Dollar Baby" are fighting for best picture and director.
It would be Scorsese's first Oscar after four previous best-director losses, and the first time he has delivered a best-picture winner. Eastwood claimed both prizes with 1992's "Unforgiven."
Scorsese has made it clear he would love to win, but he says even an Oscar triumph would have its drawbacks.
"Probably the most frightening thing is to get up there and speak," Scorsese said. "It's a scary thing, I think, to get up there, because the words have to be somewhat weighty."
The other best-picture candidates are the J.M. Barrie tale "Finding Neverland," the Ray Charles saga "Ray" and the road-trip comedy "Sideways."
Among actors, "Ray" star Jamie Foxx is the one virtual shoo-in for his remarkable embodiment of Charles. Besides his best-actor nomination, Foxx also was picked in the supporting category for "Collateral."
Foxx and best-actor nominee Don Cheadle ("Hotel Rwanda"), supporting-actor contender Morgan Freeman ("Million Dollar Baby") and supporting-actress candidate Sophie Okonedo ("Hotel Rwanda") scored a record five nominations for black performers.
Wins by front-runners Foxx and Freeman would make it only the second time that blacks have won two of the four acting Oscars.
Hilary Swank, an Oscar winner for "Boys Don't Cry," is the favorite to take best actress again for "Million Dollar Baby," while Cate Blanchett has the inside track on supporting actress for "The Aviator."
Swank, whose career has been spotty since "Boys Don't Cry," said she's more grateful for her Oscar experience this time.
"Because after ‘Boys Don't Cry,’ I thought there was going to be this plethora of opportunities," Swank said. "And I realize that the really good roles are just so few and far between. So I'm just now really appreciative."
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