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 $7.5 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.”
The 2006 nominees did a bit better with a cumulative gross of about $297 million, thanks largely to the winner, “The Departed,” which ended up with more than $132 million. “The Departed” also had a revered director in Martin Scorsese and an all-star cast including Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Jack Nicholson.
The nominees from 2005 combined for about $245 million with the winner, the ensemble drama “Crash,” making only about $55 million. But that year had huge buzz thanks to “Brokeback Mountain,” the gay cowboy romance, which had America talking regardless of their interest in art-house films. The perceived front-runner until the moment the envelope was opened, it made $83 million.
But it’s not just the contenders in the best picture category that are drawing specialized crowds. “Michael Clayton” is the only film with multiple acting nominations: for its star, George Clooney, and supporting actors Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton. The suspenseful corporate thriller from first-time director Tony Gilroy has made a decent $41.5 million.
“Away From Her,” which has made a best-actress front-runner of Julie Christie as a wife suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, made just under $16 million in limited release last year. “La Vie en Rose,” the Edith Piaf biopic, has grossed only about $10 million, despite a wildly heralded performance from best-actress nominee Marion Cotillard.
The languid Western “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” with its creepy, nuanced supporting turn from nominee Casey Affleck, hasn’t even made $4 million. And the experimental “I’m Not There,” which features six different people playing various incarnations of Bob Dylan — including supporting-actress nominee Cate Blanchett — made just about $3.5 million in its limited run.
“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.”
While they haven’t exactly been boffo in terms of box office, this year’s awards contenders are undeniably strong in terms of art. Veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins, who’s up for two Oscars for “No Country” and “Jesse James,” compared the nominees to the kinds of films that pushed boundaries in the 1970s.
“It’s one of the best years because there’s so many intelligent films that are provocative. They’re actually about something as well as being entertaining,” said Deakins, the longtime Coen brothers collaborator, who’s also been nominated for the more mainstream “The Shawshank Redemption.”
“It really makes you feel part of a real cinema,” he added. “There’s brilliant, brilliant people out there.”