By DAVID GERMAIN
LOS ANGELES — A classic Hollywood cliffhanger will conclude Sunday's Academy Awards, and organizers hope the suspense of an up-for-grabs best-picture race will be enough to keep TV audiences tuned in through the finale.
Hollywood's biggest party has lost some of its luster for viewers at home over the last decade, with TV ratings on a general decline and smaller movies that fewer people have seen dominating key Oscar categories. Fewer eyeballs on the movies usually translates to fewer eyeballs on the Oscar ceremony, as the TV audience feels less vested in the outcome. This time, though, the best-picture race is as wide open as it has been in years, lacking the usual front-runner or two that everyone just knows will end up winning. ...
Earlier film awards that serve as a dress rehearsal for the Oscars have been all over the place, their top prizes spread among so many different movies that any one of the five nominees could walk off with best picture.
"The chatter about this being a wide-open year I think encourages viewership," said Sid Ganis, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. "And it's a diverse year in terms of the combination of ethnicity and nationality. The films come from all over the place this year, and lord knows, we have nominees in all shades and colors."
Five blacks, two Hispanics and an Asian are among the 20 acting nominees, including best-actor front-runners Forest Whitaker and supporting-acting favorites Eddie Murphy and Chicago's Jennifer Hudson.
And the best-picture race presents a notably international scope, including a road trip on America's byways ("Little Miss Sunshine"), a classy British drama ("The Queen"), a Japanese-language war tale ("Letters From Iwo Jima") and a globe-trotting ensemble story ("Babel").
Unlike the previous two years, this season's best-picture crop has a $100 million (?76 million) hit going into Oscar night, the cops-and-mobsters epic "The Departed." The other nominees have ranged from about $12 million (?9 million) to $60 million (?45.7 million) at the box office.
Collectively, the five best-picture nominees had taken in a modest $256 million (?194.9 million) through last weekend, translating to about 38.5 million moviegoers. That continued a trend over the last three years in which more intimate films with smaller audiences have ruled at the Oscars. In blockbuster years, 100 million people or more had seen best-picture contenders.
"There aren't a lot of people cheering on these films. Unfortunately, the Oscars are being punished for the evolution of filmmaking and where it is today, with the great movies being made by independent filmmakers," said Tom O'Neil, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times' awards site TheEnvelope. "The great movies are no longer the studio-packaged blockbusters like they used to be, like `Rain Man' or even `Gladiator.' The best movies being made are more art-house."
The largest TV audience the Oscar ceremony has ever drawn came in 1998, when 55 million people tuned in to see king-of-the-blockbusters "Titanic" crowned best picture. The number of viewers has been down since, averaging about 40 million over the last five years.