As “True Grit” shows signs of becoming the Oscar season’s first breakout hit, it is reviving a question that has long shadowed the Academy Awards: Does the audience get a vote?
Last weekend “True Grit,” written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, shocked Hollywood by burning up the box office. The sober western generated $24.4 million in North American theaters, just $1.3 million less than the holiday weekend’s No. 1 movie, the blatantly commercial “Little Fockers.” And “True Grit” dropped only 2 percent from the prior weekend, which was its first in theaters; drops of 50 percent are routine, and anything less than 30 percent is judged by the industry to be spectacular.
“True Grit” has also galloped far ahead of freshly released Oscar contenders like “The King’s Speech,” “Black Swan” and “The Fighter.” Within days, if trends hold, “True Grit” — based on a novel by Charles Portis and filmed by Paramount for just $38 million — will have accumulated about $95 million at the box office, according to analysts, pushing it past “The Social Network,” a heavily promoted best picture prospect that was released by Sony Pictures more than three months ago.
Strictly speaking, box-office results have no bearing on the Oscars, which are awarded on the basis of perceived merit by the 5,755 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. And the Academy’s members — who last year chose the little-seen “Hurt Locker” as best picture at the expense of the blockbuster “Avatar,” among others — have shown themselves ever more willing to give their prizes to small, independent films and to those who make them, regardless of whether many moviegoers have actually seen them.
Yet box-office performance can exert a distinct pull on the awards process. It happened last year with “The Blind Side,” which collected only middling reviews but scored Oscar nominations after turning into a surprise hit, with almost $256 million in ticket sales following its late-November release by Warner Brothers. “The Blind Side,” about a Southern white woman who takes a troubled black high school football player under her wing, ultimately won the best actress Oscar for its star Sandra Bullock.
“Politics and emotion come into play,” said Peter Sealey, a 15-year Academy member who once ran marketing and distribution operations for Columbia Pictures. Particularly in the best picture category, Mr. Sealey said, strong audience response creates a “buzz that can be manipulated” by the many strategists and marketers who work the awards circuit.
Academy officials are generally careful to avoid seeming to favor any particular Oscar contender. But they have made overt moves in the recent past to include more crowd pleasers in an effort to guarantee continuing interest in the annual awards broadcast on ABC. (This year’s ceremony is on Feb. 27; nominations will be announced on Jan. 25.) Most noticeably, the Academy last year doubled the field of best picture nominees to 10, hoping to open up room for blockbusters like “The Blind Side” — and this year, perhaps, “Toy Story 3” “Inception” or “True Grit.”
The ploy appeared to work: almost 42 million people watched the Oscars last year, a 15 percent increase from the year before, according to Nielsen Media Research. While slicing and dicing ratings data is an inexact science at best, the inclusion of “The Blind Side” appeared to help the telecast in particular, with notable gains among older women — the same group that powered that film at the box office — and stronger than usual turnout in the Midwest and South.
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