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For Oscars, a new turn towards an old friend: Dollars

This is the first time in nearly a decade - since the 2009 year of eligibility - that three movies have grossed at least US$200 million at the time of nominations

FOR many years, the Oscars were accused of taking an overly narrow view of what constitutes a best picture, prioritising a certain kind of art-house film above all others.

Not anymore.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the 8,000-strong group considered the most influential in the entertainment industry, made a number of definition-expanding firsts on Tuesday when it announced its best picture candidates.

It chose among its eight nominees a movie (Roma) from Netflix, a streaming company that has angered traditionalists with its indifference to the theatrical experience. It went with an instalment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Black Panther), the first modern superhero film to land the honour. And it selected a populist rock biopic (Bohemian Rhapsody) that had been savaged by many critics and thought dead just two weeks ago.

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"The irony is, the year they decided against the 'popular' Oscar, look at how popular the movies they ended up with really were," said John Sloss, executive producer of the best-picture-nominated Green Book, referring to a shelved plan last summer to create a separate category for blockbusters.

It is the first time in nearly a decade - since the 2009 year of eligibility - that three movies have grossed at least US$200 million at the time of nominations. Last year, not a single best-picture nominee reached that benchmark.

But, in so doing, the group also opened questions about the importance of money in its choices.

Bohemian Rhapsody, about the late Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, was written off with few top nominations from Hollywood's guilds and a Metacritic score below even 50 per cent. Yet it had grossed US$202 million and, after landing a major prize with the 90 people who decide the Golden Globes, secured a best-picture nomination.

Roma, though far from a commercial hit, may have had financial factors behind its selection too. Netflix has spent profusely to land a nomination for the film, a black-and-white Spanish-language coming-of-age movie from Alfonso Cuar├│n centred on housekeepers in 1970s Mexico. The company worked with a high-end art-book publisher Assouline to put together a glossy volume (retail price US$175), held events at Los Angeles hot spots such as Spago, and took numerous billboard and television ads, all to attract attention from academy members.

Popular Oscar

And Black Panther was a consensus critical favourite. But the academy has been eager regardless to find a place for the movie, which is the third-highest-grossing film in the United States of all time. Its success was one of the motivations for the "popular" Oscar, according to a person familiar with the discussions who was not authorised to talk about them publicly.

"What this speaks to is an academy that needs more people watching the show, pure and simple," a movie executive not affiliated with the campaigns for any of these three films said, asking for anonymity so as not to be seen criticising competitors. "They've always needed it. But this year they've done something about it." The academy has been desperate to broaden its base as ratings have plummeted. Last year marked an all-time low, as 26.6 million average total viewers watched the ABC telecast, down nearly 20 per cent from the previous year, according to Nielsen.

Best picture is a good place to do that, because nominees tend to get the most screen time and occupy a segment that is among the highest rated, as they will again when the show airs on Feb 24 without a single host. And unlike nearly every other category, the category's nominees are a reflection of the entire academy. (Best picture is decided on by the entire membership, as opposed to the clusters of several hundred to a thousand people who decided nominees for many individual categories.) But while a ratings-hungry academy might crave a blockbuster best-picture nominee, the connection between the two is tenuous.

The years in which Avatar and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of The King garnered many nominations did see strong ratings. But the highest viewership this century actually came in a less-massive year - in the 2013 season when 12 Years a Slave won, with Gravity the highest-grossing best-picture nominee.

Whether the academy this year moved toward popular taste or vice versa was a matter of debate. Industry members volleyed back and forth on Tuesday on whether some of these hits - they also include the Lady Gaga-driven remake of A Star Is Born - were more Oscar-worthy than past smashes or whether the Oscars were simply more willing to give those smashes a look.

Part of the shift may be a matter of voting demographics. The academy has increased its ranks by more than 30 per cent since 2016, with many of the new members coming from younger demographics with fewer preconceptions about what an Oscar drama should look like.

That new demographic is also more racially diverse, a response to the criticism that the academy has historically been too white. (This year's record-high new class was nearly 40 per cent people of colour.) That may have helped Spike Lee get his first-ever directing nomination. His film, BlacKkKlansman, was also nominated for best picture, joining Black Panther as a film that used genre to discuss weighty issues about race.

Seizing the moment

Disney executives realised the change that was upon them and seized the moment. The Panther nomination occasioned a statement from no less a figure than Robert Iger, the company's chairman and chief executive "Congratulations to all of our nominated films, and especially Black Panther, " he said. "To see it recognised by the academy today with seven nominations, including Best Picture, is truly an honour." He went on to offer well wishes to Black Panther director Ryan Coogler and Marvel executive Kevin Feige "for their creative excellence, unparallelled artistry, and heartfelt passion for this project".

The year of big-studio movies brings full circle what had been nothing short of a two-decade revolution at the Oscars. It began during the 1996-1997 season, when four of the five best-picture nominees came from so-called studio specialty divisions; none of the quartet topped US$50 million in box office at the time of nominations. That ended a long period in which Hollywood's major studios made movies that the Oscars recognised.

The trend reached its apex in the 2007-2008 season, which also saw only one studio nominee and one nominee that exceeded US$50 million - and the one studio film was a dark R-rated drama, Michael Clayton. (Studio specialty divisions are affiliated with the studios but run separately from them and often take on grittier fare at lower budgets.)

And it continued well into the 2010s. Two years ago, not a single best-picture nominee had even reached US$100 million at the time of nominations. The eventual winner was Moonlight, the second-lowest-grossing victor of the modern era. It was produced and released by A24, an independent company.

"I think if you look back at the recent history of the Oscars is a 20-plus-year bubble that now may be ending," said Tom Quinn, a veteran of many campaigns over that time who now runs the specialty distributor Neon, referring to the era that began with the seminal 1996-1997 Oscar season. "I don't think you could have predicted then all that it would bring."

New era started by Netflix

One way a new era may begin is with Netflix, which capped its achievement with an announcement it would join the Motion Picture Association of America, the industry trade group composed of the biggest studios, many of which have been sceptical about the streamer.

Netflix executives declined to comment on the nominations or its campaign for Roma. Instead, a spokeswoman sent a quote from Ted Sarandos, the company's chief content officer.

"Thank you to the academy for recognising all those who took creative leaps this past year. We are honoured to receive our first Best Picture nomination and so many other firsts this morning," he said. Congratulations to all of the nominees for pushing boundaries and making films that inspire us all." Some contenders on Tuesday grumbled privately that Netflix was not interested in the theatrical experience and was using Roma, a respected director and now the academy as a stalking horse to erode cinema.

But those involved with Roma said they saw the nominations as achieving a purer goal.

"This is a movie that talks about the role of community, and in Mexico, that has been suffering for years," Marina de Tavira, one of the stars of Roma, said in an interview. "I am so happy with what Netflix has done because it has brought attention to these places. I hope it opens up the possibility for many more movies like it." WP