Nominees could boost Oscarcast ratings

Commentary: 'Avatar,' other crowd-pleasers are in the mix

With a history-making blockbuster, several high-art, high-impact indie films and some bona fide crowd-pleasers in the mix for best picture, the Academy Awards are poised to put on a snappy, in some races suspenseful and -- could it be? -- audience-friendly and ratings-grabbing Oscar telecast.

Whatever folks here in town say about it being an overall lackluster year for movies -- I keep hearing this off-handed putdown despite having personally enjoyed more diverse movies in 2009 than for the past several years -- the boxoffice haul belies such a view, and not just because of "Avatar."

A lot of interesting movies beyond this game-changer got made despite studio cutbacks, the shuttering of niche labels, the decimation of the indie ranks and the general wailing and flailing of pundits.

As for the main impetus behind the Academy's decision to double the field for best pic -- which will widen the appeal of the Oscarcast itself -- the stars are aligned for there to be a noticeable reversal in the ratings trend line. So many people worldwide went to see American movies this past year that interest in this, the final, most prestigious lap of the season, is bound to have been built.

That the Academy voted to put Oscarcast co-hosts Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin on its official poster says volumes about its newfound commercial impetus and its faith in their joint appeal to pull off a winner. (Martin certainly has the experience, and Baldwin has the best comic timing in the biz. If those two can't do it ...)

Producers Bill Mechanic and Adam Shankman (as well as ABC) also can take heart from CBS' success with the Grammys. That show was beautifully paced, well-mounted and had first-rate musical performances. The viewers noticed.

Word is that the Oscar producers are hard at work to turn this into a show of shows -- less solemn, self-reverential and disconnected, more upbeat, interactive and fun. A dance number is rumored as well, though here they'll have to wow 'em and then get the folks off the stage before ennui sets in.

Other aspects of the season also bode well for high tune-in.

Whatever the happy surprises or unfortunate exclusions from the best picture noms, the most substantive fact is that the Academy voters embraced both the highest-grossing movie of all time in James Cameron's "Avatar" and one of the -- how to put it? -- least commercial but critically acclaimed in Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker."

Despite raking in only $13 million domestically, the latter pic has only grown in stature since its release. The pic is one of the few recent war-themed movies to have so effectively portrayed what it's like to be, as it were, in the trenches.

This go-round could mirror the fascinating 1997 race, when "Titanic" was discombobulated by the kudos raked up by "L.A. Confidential" right up to the Oscar ceremony itself, when the big boat swept all before it.

"It is hard to argue with $2 billion at the boxoffice when it comes to momentum for the big trophy," is how one awards maven put it. "How the other races go is anyone's guess and could make for some fun suspense."

And for the movie-obsessed, there is the added piquancy of two ex's, as in Cameron and Bigelow, going head to head in several categories.

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The rest of the field holds out some intriguing stories as well, breaking down into a blend of overtly commercial fare -- think "Up," "The Blind Side" and "District 9" -- with more difficult fare like "A Serious Man," "An Education" and "Precious." Oscar parties at home should have something for almost everyone to cheer for.

The nom for Sandra Bullock could be read as a nod to the popularity of the actress across the country as much as for her often unnoticed thespian chops. Otherwise disinterested viewers may take note and tune in for that as well.

Even with 10 slots for best picture, however, there are bound to be raised eyebrows and shrugged shoulders. Folks will chatter about the exclusion of Clint Eastwood's "Invictus" (uplifting and worthy generally does get a nom), "Julie & Julia" (way too delicious), "It's Complicated" (too comic perhaps), "The Hangover" (too crass) or "A Single Man" (too austerely downbeat). Given the field, even a reinvigorated sci-fi summer franchise like "Star Trek" could easily have figured as a finalist.

None of these, though, should by themselves turn viewers away from the telecast.