MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

Sunday night's Oscars ceremony reflects a polarization in the movie business. Only one of the best picture nominees, "Juno," is a real hit. The big box office movies of the past year weren't nominated in the top Oscar categories.

As NPR's Kim Masters reports, the Academy is hoping people will want to watch on Sunday night even if they haven't seen the movies.

KIM MASTERS: The Oscar telecast has been flailing against slipping ratings for some years now. And that's not a problem that's likely to be helped by this year's nominees.

Mr. PETE HAMMOND (Oscar analyst): Where are the movie stars?

MASTERS: Oscar analyst Pete Hammond says there's no lack of talent in the race, but there are virtually no bankable stars. And then, there is the best picture category.

Mr. HAMMOND: And the movies that have been nominated aren't, you know, what you'd call the public's favorites.

MASTERS: Only "Juno" has grossed more than $100 million dollars. The rest are far darker and far behind at the box office, meaning that many people haven't seem them and don't care whether they win or lose. Those include the frontrunner, "No Country for Old Men," as well as "Atonement," "Michael Clayton" and "There Will Be Blood."

(Soundbite of movie, "No Country for Old Men")

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Let's give it a try.

Mr. TOMMY LEE JONES (Actor): (As Ed Tom Bell) These people will kill him, Carla Jean. They won't quit.

(Soundbite of movie, "Michael Clayton")

Mr. TOM WILKINSON (Actor): (As Arthur Edens) I am Shiva the god of death.

MASTERS: The Oscars aren't supposed to be about commercial success, but ratings go up when a true blockbuster is in contention. Last year's show was watched by 40 million people, a far cry from the 55 million who tuned in when "Titanic" won in 1998.

Mr. MICHAEL SHAMBERG (Movie Producer): So the mainstream Hollywood film and the classic Oscar film right now aren't quite the same.

MASTERS: Producer Michael Shamberg has had two best picture nominations for the "Big Chill" and "Erin Brockovich." These days, he says, the studio is focused on expensive action movies and broad comedies. What's missing is the midlevel film that used to attract big audiences and Oscar attention.

Mr. SHAMBERG: It could be, you know, ordinary people, for example, the kind of less showy films that depend on really A-storytelling. We're not seeing that as much from the studios.

MASTERS: Shamberg says the good news is that the major studios now have specialty units that nurture smaller films. All of this year's best picture nominees, except "Michael Clayton," came from those divisions. And even if the films don't always feature the hottest stars, Shamberg says the Academy can count on the presenters to add some sizzle.

Mr. SHAMBERG: And when the audience turns on the Oscars, they're going to see all the glamour and all the dresses and all the red carpet and all the stars they love to see. That's never going to go away.

MASTERS: Indeed, there are big stars among this year's presenters. Gill Cates, producer of the show, has already announced the names.

Mr. GILL CATES (Producer, Oscar Awards): Steve Carell, George Clooney, Penelope Cruz, Miley Cyrus, Hannah Montana.

Mr. Hammond: Miley Cyrus - boy. Now, talk about, you know, trying to reverse the trend and getting a new generation of Oscar viewers, I mean…

MASTERS: Oscar analyst Pete Hammond says inviting Miley Cyrus to be a presenter despite her rather thin film oeuvre is not the only way the Academy is chasing ratings this year.

(Soundbite of VH1 special)

Unidentified Woman: Time to relive all the drama and outrageousness of Oscar's greatest moments.

Unidentified Man #1: Wow.

MASTERS: That's an Oscar special that's been airing for the past week or so on VH1. Hammond's a talking head in the show, which includes such iconic clips as this…

(Soundbite of VH1 special)

Ms. SACHEEN LITTLEFEATHER: Hello. My name is Sacheen Littlefeather. I'm representing Marlon Brando this evening.

MASTERS: And this.

(Soundbite of VH1 special)

Ms. SALLY FIELD (Actor): I can't deny the fact that you like me, right now. You like me.

MASTERS: Hammond says the Academy almost never permits anyone to use clips from its shows. He was stunned that VH1 got access to the whole trove.

Mr. HAMMOND: I've done a lot of television shows and a lot of things in the past, and it's always, always - they always turn you down.

MASTERS: But not this year. The show may not be elegant, but obviously, the Academy is willing to go a little down market to hold on to its audience.

Kim Masters, NPR News.

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