The Oscar Best Picture Nominees: (Almost) No Big Commercial Hits!

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The average box-office gross for this year's top contenders is far less than in recent years.

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Pixar/Sony/Fox

For years, it's been fashionable to complain that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is out of touch with America's taste in movies, preferring to nominate—and award—little-seen prestige pictures instead of popular-but-still-worthy films. But take a look at recent previous nomination classes compared with those announced today. If the Academy was elitist before, it appears it's now gone ultra-1-percent.

In 2009, the Academy expanded the field of Best Picture nominees from five to 10. Part of the idea behind the change was to make room for well-liked, popular films like The Dark Knight, which was snubbed at the previous year's awards. Looking back, and judged by the standard of including both hits and indies, the change was a moderate success: Commercial giants like Avatar, Inception, and Toy Story 3, and also well-performing middlebrow flicks like The Blind Side, all received top-prize nominations for the 82nd and 83rd Academy Awards.

For this year's nominations, the rules changed again. Now, a film must receive at least 5 percent of the voters' first-place picks to make it into the running, meaning that the total number of Best Picture contenders could be anywhere between five and 10 films. As we learned this morning, nine ended up making the shortlist.

Of those nine, there's only one bona fide hit: The Help. In fact, that's the only film to have made more than $100,000,000 at the box office. This is actually a huge change from the previous two years' experiment: The average box haul for this year's nominees is $57,462,434.89, less than half the average haul from last year's and a third of the average from the nominees two years ago. Here's how they stack up:

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2011Domestic Total Gross as of Jan. 22, 20122010Domestic Total Gross as of the week of Jan. 21-27, 2011 (Nominations announced Jan. 25)2009Domestic Total Gross as of the week of Jan 29-Feb 4, 2010 (Nominations announced Feb. 2)

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Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close$10,737,239.00Winter's Bone$6,278,295.00An Education$8,859,387.00

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The Artist$12,119,718.00127 Hours$11,374,120.00A Serious Man$9,228,768.00

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The Tree of Life$13,303,319.00The Kids Are All Right$20,811,365.00The Hurt Locker$12,671,105.00

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The Descendants$51,259,658.00The King's Speech$61,114,907.00Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire$45,583,053.00

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Hugo $55,887,402.00The Fighter$74,317,924.00Up in the Air$74,331,193.00

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Midnight in Paris$56,446,217.00Black Swan$85,604,041.00District 9$115,646,235.00

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War Horse$72,285,180.00The Social Network$96,962,694.00Inglourious Basterds$120,540,719.00

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Moneyball$75,524,658.00True Grit$140,787,635.00The Blind Side$239,026,369.00

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The Help$169,598,523.00Inception$292,576,195.00Up$293,004,164.00

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Toy Story 3$415,004,880.00Avatar$606,493,323.00

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2011 Sum$517,161,914.002010 Sum$1,187,179,641.002009 Sum$1,525,384,316.00

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2011 Average$57,462,434.892010 Average$120,483,205.602009 Average$152,538,431.60

What accounts for this year's overwhelming preference for small-and-mid-size films? Could be that movie-ticket sales have generally been on the decline. And it could be that there just wasn't a film that united critics and audiences this year, a la Toy Story 3 or Inception. But even though Chris Nolan may have made no movies in 2011 and Pixar's Cars 2 was panned, there were a few commercially viable contenders: Bridesmaids and the final Harry Potter film both got some Oscar buzz and yet didn't make the final cut. I wouldn't have minded Super 8 getting a nod.

In a way, it's a return to the final years of the five-picture nominations, which were seen as increasingly uncommercial. Blame this year's rules change, or blame a longer trend. "The prognosticators are going down the wrong path if they don't take into account the Academy's plain and growing disdain for commerciality and blockbusters," Bill Wyman wrote for The Atlantic last year. This year's Best Picture nominees would seem to prove the "growing" part of that statement, at least, right.

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Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's Patch.com and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club, RollingStone.com, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.

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