Will the results on Sunday night suggest that Hollywood’s best and most artistically significant film-makers are unable to cut it commercially?

It was one thing everyone seemed to agree on: this year’s Oscar lineup was the strongest for years. A Vanity Fair article in October set the tone by asking: is 2013 the greatest year for movies since the Gone with the Wind era? Others including the Hollywood Reporter have stoked the fire, suggesting that this year’s offerings — from meaty social-conscience dramas such as 12 Years a Slave through oddball indie flicks (Her, Nebraska) to a blockbuster laden with special effects in the shape of Gravity — are on a par with Hollywood’s best ever.

But as Oscar night nears, the mood appears to have subtly altered. Will the results on Sunday night suggest that Hollywood’s best and most artistically significant film-makers are unable to cut it commercially? This, in truth, is one of Hollywood’s oldest dilemmas, perhaps emphasised most dramatically at the 2010 Oscars, when The Hurt Locker, which had grossed only $14m at the US box office at that point, defeated the most successful film of all time, Avatar, for the best picture award. The 2014 vintage is less starkly differentiated, but raises a similar question.

Of the nine best picture nominees, only four can be counted as bona fide domestic hits, having surpassed $100m at the US box office: Gravity ($270m), American Hustle ($145m), The Wolf of Wall Street ($113m) and Captain Phillips ($107m). Of the remaining five, 12 Years a Slave ($49m) and Philomena ($33m) can be viewed as respectable performances, while the remaining three have struggled to find a significant audience — Dallas Buyers Club ($25m), Her ($24m) and Nebraska ($17m).

If, as is widely believed, 12 Years a Slave beats Gravity and American Hustle to the top award, it will represent another small crisis for those who want Hollywood to be capable of being popular and artistically successful at the same time.

Of course, as Variety magazine’s executive editor, Steven Gaydos, puts it: “Anyone who thinks that commercial success is a barometer of Oscar achievement is after the wrong rabbit.” The awards season, he says is, refreshing precisely because for a few weeks Hollywood stops thinking about the bottom line and starts thinking about what are actually the best films.

But the age-old dance between these two concerns is important, if only because, Mr. Gaydos says, “whatever else, the Academy has a need for a bunch of films that people have seen to get ratings for telecast of the show”.

“It’s almost as if the Academy is divided against itself,” he adds. “On the one hand, there’s a desire that the awards are a pure, sanctified process, all about artistic grace. But if they took all the campaigning and showbiz out of it, the telecast would be dead in two years.” One of the clearest signs of the Oscars’ desire to change was the expansion of the best picture nominee list in 2009, from a maximum of five to a maximum of 10. The widening of the net, it was reasoned, would lead to more populist films being included, and this has largely been borne out. Ratings have recovered since the low of 32 million viewers in 2008, when No Country for Old Men won, reaching 40 million last year.

Although he doesn’t see the 2014 Oscar circus as a disaster in waiting, Mr. Gaydos does suggest any diminishment of Hollywood confidence can also be explained by the increasing speed and pressure of what he calls the “hype cycle”. Fuelled by the explosion of social media, a film’s reputation can be established and then reassessed at lightning speed as self-appointed pundits weigh in. What might have taken months, or years, in old-media days, now can develop in a matter of days.

Even without commercial considerations, the shine has been taken off what was considered the best field of Oscar contenders for decades. “There are a lot of unseasoned voices out there trying to assert themselves alongside the experienced commentators. There’s a new fraternity of awards season bloggers who are the ones who, by constant buzz, actually create the field that the Oscar voters pick.”

This year has seen some radical shifts in status, most obviously that of American Hustle. The 1970s-set crime comedy won many of the early critics awards in December and January, as well as the Golden Globe (best musical or comedy) but is now considered an outside bet for best picture behind Gravity and 12 Years a Slave.

Some things, however, won’t change. Mr. Gaydos says: “The masterpiece consensus may happen real fast, but time, as ever, is a disinfectant. Great movies stand the test of time, over-hyped movies fade in the harsh light of day.”

Copyright: Guardian News & Media 2014