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This year’s Oscars marks a new battleground for the dichotomy of art-house vs. blockbuster movies.  By increasing the Best Picture category from 5 to 10 selections, it looks like the Academy is aiming at allowing the blockbusters a shot at the coveted statuette, and not the other way round.

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Why do I say that?  A look at the past winners in recent years would give a hint or two:  Slumdog Millionaire (2008), a production of just $15 million and a cast of unknown, foreign actors; No Country for Old Men (2007), a $25 million production and not a big hit domestically in terms of box office sales.

Several of the Best Picture contenders in recent years are represented by low-budget indie films, such as Juno (2007) and Little Miss Sunshine (2006).  Mind you, they might have reaped millions from their Oscar nods after the fact.

Not that blockbusters are necessarily artistically deficient, or that indie films must be artistically worthy, but it’s safe to say that blockbuster movies are crowd pleasers and more readily received. Art-house films are offered only in limited release, and appreciated by a much smaller audience.  Their low budget usually means no A-list stars.  It also restricts the profuse use of innovative technology as in big budget productions such as Avatar (2009).  So their general appeal is the essence of the screenplay, the acting, the storytelling within very limited means.

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The two front-runners of this year’s nominations best illustrate this point. The battle of the ex-es aside, Avatar and The Hurt Locker are neck and neck with 9 nods, competing in many of the same categories. But The Hurt Locker appears in two that are crucial in defining its artistic value as a motion picture:  Best Actor (Jeremy Renner) and Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen (Mark Boal), while Avatar falls short in these categories.

From the popularity angle, some refer their contention as David and Goliath.  The Hurt Locker, with a production cost of just $11 million and box office sales of $12.6 million, is miniscule when compared to that of Avatar’s $635 million, so far, and a reported budget of $237 million, one of the most expensive movies ever made.

Another way of seeing the two is the number of theatres screening the movies.  Avatar has over 3,000 theatres domestically, while The Hurt Locker, well, you’re lucky to catch it before it disappears from its limited release.  The DVD is out, so that really helps if you want to see it before the Awards night.

The other contenders pose a similar scenario.  Other than Avatar, four Best Pictures nominees have passed, way passed, the $100 million box office sales:The Blind Side ($242 million)Up ($293 million)Inglorious Basterds ($120 million), and District 9 ($115 million). Slightly trailing behind are Up In The Air ($77 million) and Precious: Based On The Novel Push By Sapphire ($46 million).

So what stand out are two little films, meager in comparison in terms of box office sales:  An Education ($9.6 million) and A Serious Man ($9.2 million).Their high acclaim from critics do not materialize in popular reception from movie goers, which is not surprising, for generally, these two groups don’t always see eye-to-eye.

Box office sales are the mark of popularity.  They measure how many have flocked to the theatres and are willing to pay to see a movie. Low ticket sales of course is related to how widely released the movie is, but it also gauges popular taste. There’s the rub, would the Academy members vote for a movie that has been seen by just a fraction of the viewing public?  Would they judge a movie only on its artistic and technical merits rather than the sales it generates?

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Michael Phillips of Chicago Tribune calls the inclusion of The Blind Side in this year’s Best Picture pool “a triumph of the till”.  Many critics are surprised to see it on the list.  And I suppose for Hollywood insiders and members of the Academy, they know very well what the bottom line is.  I’ve heard the argument before: If you want to see indie films and artsy productions, go to Sundance and Cannes.  I can hear them grumble … be realistic, the Oscars is a celebration of the movie business in all its glory and glamour.

I’ve appreciated what one entertainment writer has noted:

… popularity is the spiritual currency of Hollywood’s art. That’s why we call it ‘pop culture.’

It seems that nowadays, spurred on by reality talent shows which generate winners through popular votes, the contention of popularity versus skills or artistic merits is tipped way out of balance.  The critics are now made up of the populace; the panel of judges can only voice their opinion, however biting, but they do not get to vote.

And for the lesser known gems like An Education and A Serious Man, I’m glad they are included in the Best Picture pool, thanks to those who have nominated them despite their meager showing at the box office. After all, besides the money-generating function, film is in essence an art form.  Art for art’s sake or for profit remains the on-going debate.  Of course, the two need not be mutually exclusive… reality is, the financial component often is the main sustenance of a production.  It’ll be interesting to see though how the battle of David and Goliath turns out at the Oscars this year.  The implications could be more far-reaching than just churning out another winner.