Little Oscar Love for Box Office Hits

They kept you on the edge of your seat. They had you laughing so hard, you clutched your stomach as tears streamed down your cheeks. They made you skip work so you could wait in line with hundreds of other fans, feverishly scanning the crowd, hoping you wouldn't have to crane your neck and squint up at the screen.

But none of them got nominated for Oscars.

"Spider-Man 3," "Knocked Up" and "Harry Potter and the "Order of the Phoenix" were among the most anticipated and highest-grossing films of 2007. They blew out the box office ("Spider-Man" made more money than any other '07 film), they impressed the industry (Judd Apatow, "Knocked Up's" director, is Hollywood's new king of comedy), and they dominated national discourse (who didn't catch Harry Potter fever last summer?).

So why does the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the elite organization that dispenses Hollywood's highest honors, refuse to recognize them?

It's no secret that the films that score the major Academy Awards aren't usually blood-soaked thrillers or pie-in-the-groin comedies. But this year, the discrepancy between movies nominated for awards and flicks that drove people to theaters is hard to ignore.

"That gap -- it has seemed to widen in recent years. In the last four years, you're looking at one movie, two at most, in the best picture category that has grossed $100 million or more," said Sean Smith, Entertainment Weekly's Los Angeles bureau chief. "On the one hand, it looks like the Academy's out of touch with the American people. On the other, it's kind of supposed to be."

That's because the Academy cares about the passion, the genius, the art of cinema. It can't be bothered with something as banal as money.

"The Academy doesn't go by what the public likes; they're under no obligation to reward the films that the public likes," said Gitesh Pandya, editor of box-office analysis Web site "They're looking more at what deserves to be considered the best films of the year and often those are tough sells at the box office."

So who are the 6,000 film industry insiders who bestow the gilded Oscar stamp of approval?

"They're not a very diverse group," Pandya said of the Academy. "They certainly skew older, more male, and very much toward folks in Southern California. And usually they go after dramas, the more depressing films, the more serious films."

As a result, few comedies ever make the Academy's cut, especially in the best picture category. The fact that "Juno," Fox Searchlight's surprise hit about teen pregnancy, is up for four awards including best picture is a score for the oft-overlooked genre, although some thought two other major comedies were deserving of nods as well.

"A lot of people would've loved to have seen 'Knocked Up' or 'Superbad' get a screenplay nomination," Smith said of Apatow's '07 hits. "It's partly just long-term, entrenched snobbery. And we do it in our culture too. Comedy, because it's fun, we think it's easy. And actually the reverse is true."

Besides "Juno," the rest of the best picture nominees are brooding, dark and oh-so-somber: "No Country for Old Men," "There Will Be Blood," "Atonement" and "Michael Clayton." That's made the quintet of films not hugely marketable, even after Oscar nominations increased their profile. Combined, the five movies have made $252 million since their release, as of last weekend. (In its first weekend, "Spider-Man 3" made $151 million.)

That wasn't always the case for best picture nominees. "Titanic," the highest-grossing film of all time at $1.8 billion, won the award in 1998. "Schindler's List" had earned over $100 million when it won best picture in 1994. "Forrest Gump" was the top-grossing film of '94 and went on to win six Oscars, including best picture, the following year.

And in fact, nominating blockbusters has proved to be in the Academy's interest.

"When Titanic was nominated, the Oscars had their biggest audience ever," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Media by Numbers, a box-office tracking and analysis firm. "People who had seen the movie were wrapped up in it, they wanted to follow it, they had a vested interest in seeing that film win."

With the writers strike wearing on, it's unclear what the Oscars will look like Feb. 24, let alone how many people will tune in to see them. But for 2008, the Academy might want to peek outside its ivory theater and see what the rest of America's watching.

"Are they still relevant? Yes. Are they as relevant as they were 30 years ago? Probably not," Smith said.