Commentary: The naysayers discover that Oscar still has some bounce left in his step

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The 81st Annual Academy Awards have come and gone, and the army of media commentators, bloggers and Twitterers who issued dire predictions about the awards telecast are moving on to new obsessions, like whether anyone will watch "Watchmen."

But before this year's Oscars fade away altogether, a final fact check or two is in order. The rush to judgment that surrounded this year's ceremony -- bloggers were betting against the show even before it began and dissecting it mercilessly while it was taking place -- got it wrong as often as they got it right.

For example, the Academy's failure to nominate "The Dark Knight" for best picture was viewed as a death knell that would further contribute to a ratings decline. "Snubs of 'The Dark Knight,' Clint Eastwood and Bruce Springsteen point toward a new ratings nadir for the Oscar show," boxoffice analyst Steve Mason wrote in January.

But it turns out the Joker had the last laugh: Even though "Knight" turned just two of its eight noms into Oscar statuettes, the ABC broadcast registered a 13% increase in viewership compared with the previous year, from 32 million in 2008 to 36.3 million. The show didn't go through the roof, but it didn't fall into the cellar, either.

The same could be said for the so-called "Oscar bounce": Part of the rationale for the Oscars, at least from the distributors' point of view, is that money spent pursuing gold will be rewarded at the boxoffice as moviegoers flock to see the movies upon which the Academy shines its spotlight.

At first glance, that bounce looked like something of a dud this year. Casting his eye on the boxoffice returns of the best picture nominees in mid-February, the Los Angeles Times' Patrick Goldstein summed it up: "The Oscars have become a hollow brass ring. They may be the ultimate status symbol to everyone inside the industry, but outside -- in the real world, where Oscar ratings have been steadily dropping -- the awards have less and less impact."

Of course, to make that argument, it was necessary to set aside eventual best picture winner "Slumdog Millionaire," and that's a big set-aside.

The eternally optimistic India-set romantic drama, which Fox Searchlight initially released in just 10 theaters in mid-November, had grossed $43.9 million by the end of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, just before the nominations were announced. On the first post-nominations weekend, it nearly tripled the number of theaters in which it was playing, turning into a runaway word-of-mouth train. By Oscar weekend, as its filmmakers scooped up eight statuettes at the Kodak Theatre, it had grossed $98.4 million, and this past weekend it crossed the $100 million mark to hit $115.1 million.

By the time it completes its theatrical run, "Slumdog" should dance past "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," the other $100 million grosser among this year's best picture nominees.

"Button" has collected $125 million domestically. True, on a percentage basis, it didn't double its grosses in the wake of the Oscar nominations the way "Slumdog" did, but that's only because Paramount chose a different release pattern, opening the expensive fantasy film in nearly 3,000 theaters on Christmas Day.

The studio didn't wait for awards validation to make its bid for a broad audience, so "Button" had raked in more than $103 million by the time noms were unveiled.

Some of the season's smaller and more political best picture nominees, such as "Milk" and especially "Frost/Nixon," found it more difficult to find footing at the boxoffice, even with the help of their noms.

On the other hand, where would a movie like "The Reader" be without awards attention?

The marketplace in December saw the arrival of two literate screen adaptations of critically endorsed novels that starred Kate Winslet. Presumably, "Revolutionary Road," in which she shared screen time with her "Titanic" paramour Leonardo DiCaprio, should have been the easier sell. But though "Road" picked up four prominent Golden Globe noms and one win, it had to settle for three Oscar noms. It grossed a little less than $22 million.

"Reader," on the other hand, figured just as prominently at the Globes and went on to score five Oscar noms, one of which resulted in Winslet's best actress victory, which the Weinstein Co. featured to the exclusion of anything else in its ads for the movie this past weekend.

The result? "Reader" has grossed $27 million and should take in a few million more, which will have it outdistancing "Road" by about $10 million.

As Oscar bounces go, it's not a jackpot, but it's not chopped liver, either.
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