Awards Season

Expanded Oscar Field Makes Room For Big-Money Movies

Quinton Aaron and Sandra Bullock in 'The Blind Side.

Step aside, big guys: Sandra Bullock's acting nomination was no surprise, but The Blind Side probably owes its Best Picture nod to the category's expansion. Ralph Nelson/Warner Bros. Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Ralph Nelson/Warner Bros. Pictures

There weren't a lot of enormous surprises in this morning's Oscar nominations, in which the leaders are Avatar and The Hurt Locker, with nine each. (Get the full report here.) Nevertheless, the expanded field of 10 Best Picture nominees really did have at least some of the intended effect — which was to include more well-received commercial successes alongside the smaller films that have been making up the field in recent years.

One rough way to estimate the effects of the expanded field is to cross-reference the 10 Best Picture nominees with the five Best Director nominees, and guess that in a normal year their films are the ones that probably would have gotten the Best Picture nods. That would make the nominees Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Precious, Inglourious Basterds, and Up In The Air.

So the five other nominees on the list are The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, A Serious Man, and Up. Of those, An Education and A Serious Man are relatively traditional nominees, but in a normal year, The Blind Side is exactly the kind of movie that might earn an acting nomination for Sandra Bullock — which it did — while getting passed over for Best Picture. District 9, meanwhile, wasn't a Transformers-size smash hit or anything, but it did make $115 million.

And then, of course, there's Up, which got the Best Picture nomination many believed WALL-E should have gotten last year and didn't.

What this means for the box-office performance of the field, after the jump ...

Combined with the fact that Inglourious Basterds and Avatar both made plenty of money, you wind up with a situation where five nominees have already made at least $100 million. Now look at last year: Only The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button had made $100 million by the time it was nominated for Best Picture. (Slumdog Millionaire far surpassed that mark later, but not by the time of its nomination.)

Bottom line: If the idea was to give viewers more of a rooting interest by nominating more movies they'd actually seen, it just may work.

Of course things weren't guaranteed to go that way. Some observers thought the nominations would just dig deeper into the same pool of art-house movies that get nominated every year. If the nominations that went to District 9, Up, and The Blind Side had gone to A Single Man, The Messenger and Crazy Heart, you'd have an entirely different situation — and the experiment, as an audience-goosing technique, would probably be viewed as a failure.

The biggest slice of controversy will undoubtedly arise over the Best Picture nomination for The Blind Side, a tear-jerking, feel-good story made no more palatable to many by the fact that it's based on an absolutely true tear-jerking, feel-good set of facts. (It's not helped in this regard by the fact that what nuance it contains was mercilessly sucked out by whoever cut the trailer, which makes it look far more humorless and pedantic than it actually is.)

So while Sandra Bullock's Best Actress nomination was widely expected, the movie's nomination was not. (Note that it was one of only two Best Picture nominees — the other being Avatar — to see its screenplay not nominated.)

The acting nominations contained few surprises, with maybe Matt Damon's nomination for Invictus (a movie that had lots of early awards buzz that largely evaporated as soon as people saw it) being the closest thing there was to one.

But away from the most highly publicized battles, there are some puzzlers in the animation categories. No animated feature nomination for Hayao Miyazaki's widely praised Ponyo, with an unexpected nomination for the little-seen The Secret Of Kells. Moreover, there was no animated short film nomination for Partly Cloudy, the beautiful little film (with the storks and the clouds) that ran alongside Up.

On the whole, not a surprising batch of nominations — but one that probably will accomplish the goal of making the awards a little more meaningful to people who primarily see movies at multiplexes. Which, after all, is where the great majority of American filmgoing actually takes place.

Note: Come back at 12:30 ET with your questions and comments, and we'll be chatting live with NPR film critic Bob Mondello about who's in, who's out, and what to expect on the big night.

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