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Oscars 2012: Is There a Recipe for Ratings Success?

4:02 PM PST 02/13/2012 by Pamela McClintock
Summit Entertainment
"The Hurt Locker," 2010's best picture winner

A historic look at the hosts, nominated pictures and numbers that put the telecast on an annual roller-coaster ride.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

For most of Oscar's history, many of the best picture nominees were also the biggest box-office hits, luring viewers to tune in to Hollywood's most fabled event. Fatal Attraction. Tootsie. The Fugitive. Working Girl. Moonstruck. It's almost unimaginable that those titles would be nominated today by award voters, who, during the past decade, have preferred indie fare, sending ratings on a troubling and volatile ride. "In the case of the Academy, the primary age and demo is by definition an art house crowd," a veteran awards consultant says. "Inception may have been nominated last year, but it never was going to win."

PHOTOS: Oscar Class of 2012

This year is a mixed bag in terms of box-office might: The Help is the only bona fide hit among the nine best-picture nominees, having earned $169 million domestically, but it is taking a backseat to awards front-runner The Artist, which has earned a mere $18 million (a black-and-white silent film starring French actors certainly isn't a draw for everyone). There also could be awards-show fatigue, not to mention a proliferation of options across the cable landscape to distract viewers; this year, TNT is airing the NBA All-Star Game against the Oscars, likely peeling away black and male audiences.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has scrambled to address the ratings woes in a myriad of ways, including the never-ending search for the hot but safe host, which includes last year's disappointing pairing of Anne Hathaway and James Franco and the return of Billy Crystal this year. The Academy also has moved the show from March to February and expanded the best-picture category from five noms to as many as 10 in the hopes that voters would choose a broader range of films that viewers would feel more vested in. Ratings indeed spiked two years ago as Avatar, Up, The Blind Side and District 9 were among the 10 films nominated for the top prize. But ratings tumbled last year, and the telecast was one of the most panned in recent history. No one knows what will happen this year. The plus side: big-name male actors (Brad Pitt, George Clooney). The minus: No one event movie to drive audiences. And Crystal, 63, as host won't exactly have anyone young tuning in.

PHOTOS: Academy Awards 2012: The Nominees

1998

Thanks to the popularity of James Cameron's Titanic, the show was the most-watched Oscar telecast ever, proving moviegoers will tune in if they are invested in a movie. Titanic was the top-grossing film of all time for more than a decade, earning $1.8 billion worldwide.

  • Viewers: 57.3 million
  • Total Domestic Box-Office Gross for All Best Bic Nominees: $998.3 million
  • Host: Billy Crystal
  • Best Picture: Titanic
  • Box-Office Gross: $600.8 million

1999

Harvey Weinstein's push for Shakespeare in Love -- which beat Saving Private Ryan in a stunning upset -- forever changed the Oscars, bringing a new ferocity to the race and ushering in an indie era, much to the chagrin of the studios.

  • Viewers: 45.6 million
  • Total Domestic Box-Office Gross for All Best Bic Nominees: $440.8 million
  • Host: Whoopi Goldberg
  • Best Picture: Shakespeare in Love
  • Box-Office Gross: $100.3 million

2000

Viewership was up 3.7 percent as viewers adjusted to watching the Oscars on Sunday instead of Monday (the switch happened the previous year). Although not nominated in the best-picture category but winning four other awards, The Matrix was a big draw  for viewers.

  • Viewers: 46.5 million
  • Total Domestic Box-Office Gross for All Best Bic Nominees: $647 million
  • Host: Billy Crystal
  • Best Picture: American Beauty
  • Box-Office Gross :$130.1 million

PHOTOS: 12 of Oscar 2012's Biggest Snubs

2001

The impact of the exploding cable universe and reality TV began to take its toll on the Academy Awards. For the first time, the telecast came in No. 2, losing to CBS' Survivor. Also, less mainstream films were in play for best picture, including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

  • Viewers: 42.9 million
  • Total Domestic Box-Office Gross for All Best Bic Nominees: $637 million
  • Host: Steve Martin
  • Best Picture: Gladiator
  • Box-Office Gross: $187.7 million

2002

Despite the Oscar ceremony returning to Hollywood and taking up residence at the Kodak Theatre, the ratings were the lowest since 1996. The country was recovering from 9/11, and the Academy severely curtailed the red-carpet ceremonies.

  • Viewers: 40.5 million
  • Total Domestic Box-Office Gross for All Best Bic Nominees: $620.9 million
  • Host: Whoopi Goldberg
  • Best Picture: A Beautiful Mind
  • Box-Office Gross: $170.7 million

2003

World events once again dampened the Oscars -- i.e., the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which came five days before the show. Viewership plummeted, and it was the least-watched telecast since ratings began in 1967. To boot, it was bested by American Idol.

  • Viewers: 33 milliom
  • Total Domestic Box-Office Gross for All Best Bic Nominees: $665.3 million
  • Host: Steve Martin
  • Best Picture: Chicago
  • Box-Office Gross: $170.7 million

STORY: Oscars 2012 Nominations: The Contenders' Reactions

2004

Peter Jackson's Return of the King and the return of Crystal as host did the trick as the show broke a three-year losing streak in terms of viewership. The broadcast instituted a five-second delay after the "wardrobe malfunction"at the Feb. 1 Super Bowl.

  • Viewers: 43.6 million
  • Total Domestic Box-Office Gross for All Best Bic Nominees: $726.8 million
  • Host: Billy Crystal
  • Best Picture: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
  • Box-Office Gross: $377.8 million

2005

In what would become a trend, none of the five best-picture contenders were on the top 10 box-office chart when nominated for the top award, and viewership slipped. The pack included Finding Neverland, Sideways, Ray and The Aviator.

  • Viewers: 42.2 million
  • Total Domestic Box-Office Gross for All Best Bic Nominees: $401.6 million
  • Host: Chris Rock
  • Best Picture: Million Dollar Baby
  • Box-Office Gross :$100.5 million

2006

In a first, indie films dominated the top category, and their combined box-office gross was a smidgen of the normal tally. The only major studio film nominated was Universal's Munich, and Crash pulled off a last-minute upset over Brokeback Mountain.

  • Viewers: 38.6 million
  • Total Domestic Box-Office Gross for All Best Bic Nominees: $254.4 million
  • Host: Jon Stewart
  • Best Picture: Crash
  • Box-Office Gross: $54.6 million

STORY: FEINBERG FORECAST: A Look at the Oscar Landscape With Just 2 Weeks to Go

2007

Viewership  improved even though Academy voters once again nominated smaller films like Little Miss Sunshine, Babel and The Queen. The one exception: The Departed from Warner Bros. and Martin Scorsese, which collected four Oscars.

  • Viewers: 39.9 million
  • Total Domestic Box-Office Gross for All Best Bic Nominees: $296.8 million
  • Host: Ellen DeGeneres
  • Best Picture: The Departed
  • Box-Office Gross: $132.4 million

2008

Ratings tumbled to an all-time low as No Country for Old Men, Atonement, Juno, Michael Clayton and There Will Be Blood competed for best picture. At the time of nominations, none were in the top 30 at the box office.

  • Viewers: 31.8M
  • Total Domestic Box-Office Gross for All Best Bic Nominees: $358 million
  • Host: Jon Stewart
  • Best Picture: No Country for Old Men
  • Box-Office Gross: $74.3 million

2009

Desperate to improve the ratings, the Academy hired Bill Condon and Laurence Mark to redo the ceremony and brought in Jackman to host. The plan worked to some degree, though ABC saw a dip in advertising because of the global economic crisis.

  • Viewers: 36.9 million
  • Total Domestic Box-Office Gross for All Best Bic Nominees: $353.4 million
  • Host: Hugh Jackman
  • Best Picture: Slumdog Millionaire
  • Box-Office Gross: $141.3 million

STORY: Academy Nominates 9 Films for Best Picture

2010

A still-worried Academy expanded the best-picture category to10 in the hopes of including bigger box- office hits. Viewership spiked as a result, though Avatar still lost the best-picture trophy to The Hurt Locker, a film that did hardly any business at all.

  • Viewers: 41.6 million
  • Total Domestic Box-Office Gross for All Best Bic Nominees: $1.71 billion (10 pics)
  • Hosts: Steve Martin, Alec Baldwin
  • Best Picture: The Hurt Locker
  • Box-Office Gross: $17 million

2011

Despite having 10 slots to fill, Academy voters still largely favored specialty fare outside of mainstream pics like Inception, The Social Network and Toy Story 3. Hoping to lure a younger crowd, Franco and Hathaway were tapped as hosts.

  • Viewers: 37.6 million
  • Total Domestic Box-Office Gross for All Best Bic Nominees: $1.36 billion (10 pics)
  • Hosts: James Franco, Anne Hathaway
  • Best Picture: The King's Speech
  • Box-Office Gross: $138.8 million
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