LOWEST RATED OSCAR TELECAST IN HISTORY?: Snubs of THE DARK KNIGHT, Clint Eastwood and Bruce Springsteen point toward a new ratings nadir for the Oscar show; The five Best Picture nominees have combined to gross only $186M, about what TDK delivered in first 4 days!

Nobody is ever completely satisfied with the Academy Award nominations, but with several key snubs, Oscar voters may have ensured that the 2009 telecast hits an all-time ratings low.

Investor Warren Buffet coined the phrase “skin in the game” to describe a situation where executives use their own money to buy shares in their company. The so-called Oracle of Omaha likes companies where insiders have their own money invested because they work harder, care more and generally are more emotionally invested.

The problem with the Oscars is that voters are nominating films that relatively few people have seen. The five movies nominated for Best Picture this week – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Slumdog Millionaire, Milk, The Reader and Frost/Nixon – have combined to gross just $186.7M. The Dark Knight passed that box office total early in its fifth day of release.

TO-DATE BOX OFFICE FOR 2009 BEST PICTURE NOMINEES
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – $104.3M
Slumdog Millionaire – $44.7M
Milk – $20.6M
Frost/Nixon – $8.9M
The Reader – $8M

How many average moviegoers and potential Oscar viewers have “skin in the game?” Based on the current average US ticket price ($7.15), only about 26 million Americans have seen Hollywood’s big five so far.

Yes, I think The Dark Knight should be a Best Picture nominee. It is absolutely one of my five favorite movies of 2008, and I believe it to be a masterpiece. Artistic excellence and blockbuster status are not mutually exclusive. I believe that one of the reasons Christopher Nolan’s comic book sequel soared past $500M US is that it struck a very real cultural chord with audiences.

There was talk that this comic book adaptation was too dark, but it is actually a relentlessly optimistic movie. What Heath Ledger’s Joker character demonstrates is that, even when the world is in shambles and people are faced with impossibly difficult choices, they do the right thing. The message of TDK is that regular people, at their core, are good. We need more movies like that right now.

I also believe that Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino, although not a perfect movie, should not have been snubbed entirely. No Best Actor for Eastwood’s turn as the irascible Walt Kowalski, and not even a Best Original Song nomination for co-writing the heartfelt theme song with his son Kyle and jazz vocalist Jamie Cullum. Gran Torino, by the way, with a to-date cume of $79.8M, has grossed more than all of the Best Picture nominees except Benjamin Button.

Other snubs that will depress the viewing audience include Best Original Song contenders, Bruce Springsteen (The Wrestler), Miley Cyrus (Bolt), Beyonce (Cadillac Records) and Alicia Keyes (Quantum of Solace). I have yet to get a good answer about why the Academy narrowed the category to just three nominees. If Bruce Springsteen is big enough for the halftime show at Super Bowl 43, he must be big enough for Hollywood’s biggest night, and if there were the usual five nominations here, Springsteen would have certainly been among them.

A disastrously low 31.76M viewers watched last year’s Oscar show for an all-time worst 18.6 Nielsen rating. Last year’s Best Picture nominees combined to gross $357.9M. This year, the five nominees will be lucky to combine for more than $300M domestic. How much lower can the TV ratings get?

There is a growing divide between what Academy voters view as film excellence and what audiences actually want to see. That’s not to say that all Best Picture nominees should be blockbusters, but they should include some true, crowd-pleasing hits. If you look at this list, it’s pretty clear where the Oscars came off the rails.

1993
Best Picture – Schindler’s List – $96M cume
Combined domestic box office of the 5 Best Picture nominees – $368.4M
Total Oscar telecast viewers – 46.2M

1994
Best Picture – Forrest Gump – $329.7M cume
Combined domestic box office of the 5 Best Picture nominees – $543.5M
Total Oscar telecast viewers – 46.26M

1995
Best Picture – Braveheart – $75.6M cume
Combined domestic box office of the 5 Best Picture nominees – $378.1M
Total Oscar telecast viewers – 44.5M

1996
Best Picture – The English Patient – $78.6M cume
Combined domestic box office of the 5 Best Picture nominees – $306.5M
Total Oscar telecast viewers – 40.8M

1997
Best Picture – Titanic – $600.8M cume
Combined domestic box office of the 5 Best Picture nominees – $998.2M
Total Oscar telecast viewers – 57.2M

1998
Best Picture – Shakespeare in Love – $100.3M cume
Combined domestic box office of the 5 Best Picture nominees – $440.9M
Total Oscar telecast viewers – 45.6M

1999
Best Picture – American Beauty – $130M cume
Combined domestic box office of the 5 Best Picture nominees – $647M
Total Oscar telecast viewers – 46.5M

2000
Best Picture – Gladiator – $187.7M cume
Combined domestic box office of the 5 Best Picture nominees – $637M
Total Oscar telecast viewers – 42.9M

2001
Best Picture – A Beautiful Mind – $170.7M cume
Combined domestic box office of the 5 Best Picture nominees – $620.1M
Total Oscar telecast viewers – 40.5M

2002
Best Picture – Chicago – $170.6M cume
Combined domestic box office of the 5 Best Picture nominees – $664.5M
Total Oscar telecast viewers – 33M

2003
Best Picture – Lord of the Rings: Return of the King – $377M cume
Combined domestic box office of the 5 Best Picture nominees – $725.9M
Total Oscar telecast viewers – 43.5M

2004
Best Picture – Million Dollar Baby – $100.5M cume
Combined domestic box office of the 5 Best Picture nominees – $401.6M
Total Oscar telecast viewers – 42.1M

2005
Best Picture – Crash – $54.5M cume
Combined domestic box office of the 5 Best Picture nominees – $245.3M
Total Oscar telecast viewers – 38.9M

2006
Best Picture – The Departed – $132.3M cume
Combined domestic box office of the 5 Best Picture nominees – $296.7M
Total Oscar telecast viewers – 39.9M

2007
Best Picture – No Country For Old Men – $74.2M cume
Combined domestic box office of the 5 Best Picture nominees – $357.9M
Total Oscar telecast viewers – 31.7M

In 1997, there were three $100M grossing movies including Titanic ($600.7M cume). Over the next seven awards cycles, there were at least two $100M grossers in each Best Picture field, and in 2000 there were four hits of that magnitude.

Then came 2005, when the five Best Picture nominees combined to gross just $245M.

BOX OFFICE FOR 2005 BEST PICTURE NOMINEES
Crash – $54.5M
Brokeback Mountain – $83M
Capote – $28.75M
Good Night and Good Luck – $31.5M
Munich – $47.4M

The disconnect between the Oscars and rank-and-file movie fans started in 2005. This is where the Academy Awards “came off the rails.” Only 38.9M viewers watched that telecast, and the Academy has continued marching to the beat of that noncommercial drummer ever since. In the final analysis, 17 of the last 20 Best Picture nominees (including the just announced group) have failed to break the $100M threshold. Unless the Academy figures out a way to give more rank-and-file moviegoers “skin in the game,” the ratings slide will continue. My hunch is that the 2009 Oscar telecast will be the lowest rated in history.

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