‘Avatar,’ other hits vie for expanded Oscar field

LOS ANGELES — James Cameron can deliver an audience, whether at movie theaters or at the Academy Awards, whether in the frosty North Atlantic or on a lush world light-years away.

Cameron’s science-fiction sensation “Avatar” is among a strong crop of popular films in the running for Oscar nominations Tuesday, the sort of hits organizers hope can elevate the modest TV ratings the ceremony has drawn in recent years.

Along with “Avatar,” prospects in the Oscar’s newly expanded best-picture race of 10 films include two other sci-fi smashes, “Star Trek” and “District 9,” the World War II hit “Inglourious Basterds” and the animated blockbuster “Up.”

Also contending are such critical darlings as the recession tale “Up in the Air,” the war-on-terror thriller “The Hurt Locker,” the Nelson Mandela story “Invictus” and the teen dramas “An Education” and “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire.”

Among acting favorites are lead players Sandra Bullock for the football drama “The Blind Side” and Jeff Bridges for the country-music tale “Crazy Heart,” and supporting performers Mo’Nique for “Precious” and Christoph Waltz for “Inglourious Basterds.” All four won Golden Globes for the roles.

Cameron made the two biggest modern blockbusters with 1997’s “Titanic,” set aboard the doomed luxury liner on its maiden Atlantic crossing, and “Avatar,” a tale of humans and aliens in conflict on a distant moon.

“Titanic” did $1.84 billion at the box office worldwide. Just before his new sci-fi epic opened in December, Cameron said, “I don’t expect that kind of performance out of ‘Avatar.’”

Yet “Avatar,” which won for best drama and director at the Golden Globes, has shot past “Titanic,” heading beyond $2 billion with plenty of box-office life left in it.

Oscar TV ratings typically rise when a major commercial hit is among the favorites. “Titanic” dominated the Oscars and lured the biggest TV audience ever — 55.2 million viewers — for Hollywood’s premier party.

The TV audience has been well below that mark since then, bottoming out at 32 million two years ago, when “No Country for Old Men” was the big winner, and coming in at 36.3 million last year, when “Slumdog Millionaire” took best picture.

Oscar organizers decided last summer to double the best-picture field to 10 movies, saying they felt there were more than five worthy contenders.

The expanded best-picture category caught Hollywood by surprise, with filmmakers, actors, studio executives and others divided over the idea. Some say it opens the Oscars up to a broader range of films; others think it might allow lesser movies to sneak into the best-picture competition.

Among those with reservations:

— “I’m never up for lowering the standards. Every one of the nominees should be able to win best picture, and if that can’t be said, I’m not sure what the reasoning is behind it,” said M. Night Shyamalan, who made the 1999 best-picture nominee “The Sixth Sense.”

— “Does that make the awards more prestigious? No. I think it makes it less prestigious,” said “Harry Potter” producer David Heyman. “But listen, if I were ever one of the 10, I’d be very proud and very happy.”

— “It seems like it might take away a little bit of the exclusivity of being a nominee out of five, rather than to be a nominee out of 10,” said Michael Douglas, a producer of 1975 best-picture winner “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and the 1987 best-actor winner for “Wall Street.”

Among those who think it might be a good idea:

“Consider critics. No critic has trouble coming up with a top-10 list,” said “The Dark Knight” director Christopher Nolan, who earned a screenplay nomination for 2001’s “Memento.” “When you look at the critics’ top-10 lists, they’re broad lists, a lot of different types of movies. That works very well for critics, and maybe it’ll work for the academy.”

“I believe in a year where you would have ‘Up in the Air’ and ‘Precious’ alongside ‘Avatar’ and ‘Up,’ I think all it does is bring more attention to the smaller films maybe people wouldn’t see,” said Jake Gyllenhaal, a 2005 Oscar nominee for “Brokeback Mountain.”

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing to give the opportunity to more popular films that also are good films,” said Lee Unkrich, director of the upcoming “Toy Story 3” from Pixar Animation, which made best-picture contender “Up.”

Denzel Washington, a two-time Oscar winner for 1989’s “Glory” and 2001’s “Training Day,” said expanding the best-picture category makes good business sense for the show’s ratings and opens the door for worthy commercial films.

But Washington said he hoped it would not lead to broadening other categories to 10 nominees, which could make an already lengthy ceremony interminable.

“You think the show’s long now? It’ll go on for two days,” Washington joked. “It’ll get an Emmy nomination for best miniseries.”

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