- The Washington Times - Friday, March 3, 2006

Forget about the Oscar bump — this year’s batch of Academy Award nominees will be lucky to escape the weekend without dragging down the Oscar telecast ratings to record lows.

Four of the five best picture nominees already have lost out on the ticket-sales boost associated with being a part of the golden five — the racial drama “Crash” already was on DVD.

“Brokeback Mountain,” the film favored to lasso the Best Picture Oscar on Sunday, actually saw its box office take shrink 8 percent the first full weekend after the nominations were announced, according to www.boxofficemojo.com.

“Capote,” the biopic about the “In Cold Blood” author, drew $2.3 million in 1,239 theaters that same weekend, hardly a windfall given all the positive publicity.

The other best picture nominees are “Munich” and “Good Night, and Good Luck.”

Last year’s Best Picture winner, “Million Dollar Baby,” grossed $12.3 million the weekend after earning the nomination, up from roughly $1.7 million the previous week, Box Office Mojo reports.

Brandon Gray, president and publisher of Box Office Mojo, says some films got a marginal bump midweek, but it quickly evaporated.

“If a blockbuster picture like ‘Lord of the Rings’ gets nominated, it will have a smaller decline than normal because everyone’s already seen it,” Mr. Gray explains. “The bump is supposed to be significant for smaller movies people haven’t seen.”

In other words, movies just like this year’s best picture nominees. So … where’s the bump? Mr. Gray blames Oscar’s eroding credibility for part of the drop.

He contends that in omitting all of this year’s box-office champs from best picture consideration, the industry is failing to use the awards show as an industry booster.

“Having a blockbuster or two in the mix has a halo effect on the movies below it,” Mr. Gray says. Audiences “think the other movies might be worth seeing, too.”

Maybe it’s not about how small the films are, but about what the films are about. Audiences may not care how many nominations a film about homosexual sheepherders receives or how deft best-actress nominee Felicity Huffman’s work is in the sex-change drama “Transamerica.”

Big films often mean big ratings for the network showing Oscar to the world, Mr. Gray says. The 1998 Oscar telecast, when the film’s jubilant director James Cameron announced he was “king of the world” after “Titanic” won Best Picture, drew 55 million viewers — the most in recent history.

Last year, 41 million viewers watched the gender-role reversal fight flick “Million Dollar Baby” pick up the night’s biggest prize, down 5 percent from 2004, when box office titan “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” took best picture.

Enter new Oscar host Jon Stewart. Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” headliner is the youngest-skewing emcee since — well, since Chris Rock last year.

The Academy hopes Mr. Stewart’s anti-authority jabs and deft, albeit left-leaning, political humor will offset some of the downward pressure on ratings exerted by the small-fry fringe movies dominating the nominations

Melani McAlister, associate professor of American studies and international affairs at George Washington University, says hiring a talk-show host to emcee already is paying off.

She watched Mr. Stewart welcome film critic Roger Ebert on the “Daily Show” recently, and she says nearly the whole conversation revolved around the host’s Oscar chores.

“So I think there will be an incentive for Stewart’s audience to watch, and that the TV audience in general will anticipate a livelier, hipper show,” she writes via e-mail.

Count Mr. Gray unconvinced. He argues that fewer than 2 million viewers watch “The Daily Show” on any given night, meaning the sales pitch reaches a limited, if demographically desirable, audience.

“The [Oscar] ratings will go down further this year,” he predicts.

ABC is so optimistic that Mr. Stewart is the man for the job it charged an average of $1.7 million per 30-second spot, up from $1.6 million last year, according to the Reuters news agency.

Robert Thompson, founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, says shrinking Oscar audiences are simply part of our ongoing cultural fragmentation.

“Once upon a time, we all focused on specific, centralized cultural events,” he says.

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