February 4, 2020 / 1:02 PM / 2 months ago

No longer niche: Oscar contenders embraced beyond the art house

LOS ANGELES, Feb 4 (Reuters) - From billion-dollar blockbuster "Joker" to one of Quentin Tarantino's highest-grossing films, many of this year's Oscar best-picture nominees have drawn crowds to the box office.

It is the second straight year that Academy Awards voters have spotlighted widely seen movies, bucking a trend toward honoring independent films like "Moonlight" and "The Hurt Locker" that played to smaller audiences in art house theaters.

Six of nine contenders for the film industry's most coveted trophy, which will be awarded on Sunday, have grossed more than $100 million worldwide, according to data from Box Office Mojo. Dark comedy "Joker," from AT&T Inc's Warner Bros, leads the pack with $1.07 billion.

Next is the $389.3 million for Tarantino's love letter to 1960s Tinseltown, "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood," released by Sony Corp's film studio. That ranks as the second-biggest box office take of Tarantino's career.

And both World War One epic "1917" and 1960s racing drama "Ford v Ferrari" have crossed $200 million worldwide.

The sizable ticket sales showed that moviegoers last year flocked to adult-oriented dramas and not just the action hero spectacles and sequels that dominate modern multiplexes, said Vulture film critic Alison Willmore.

"It's been a heartening year in that way," Willmore said. "It felt counter to the narrative that the only movies people really turn out to see in larger crowds are franchises."

Past honors for smaller films had stoked concern that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was out of touch with movie audiences and that its choices where hurting TV ratings for the Oscars telecast. When "Moonlight" was named best picture in 2017, it had sold just $22.3 million worth of tickets in the United States and Canada.

Oscars organizers considered creating a best "popular" film category for the 2019 awards ceremony. They dropped the idea after a backlash that it would establish a two-tiered system of popular and what might have been seen as "unpopular" fare.

Popular films did, however, break into the best picture race last year. The field included Marvel's superhero film "Black Panther" and rock biopic "Bohemian Rhapsody."

This year's nominees feature two movies from Netflix Inc , "Marriage Story" and "The Irishman." The company does not reveal how much money its films earn in theaters but has said that Mafia epic "The Irishman" is a hit on streaming.

More than 26 million Netflix accounts streamed at least 70 percent of the film over the first seven days, Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos said in December. He projected that figure would reach 40 million over 28 days.

Netflix has not released figures for divorce drama "Marriage Story." Both movies are still playing in theaters and streaming on Netflix.

Even the Korean-language film "Parasite," a dark satire about inequality and best picture nominee this year, has lured audiences to movie houses. It has collected $163.3 million at ticket windows around the world.

"You have a case of a foreign language film that has crossed over and become an incredible success and just a buzzed-about phenomenon," Variety film critic Owen Gleiberman said.

Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Additional reporting by Alicia Powell in New York Editing by Jonathan Oatis

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