LOS ANGELES — Oscar can be a bit scattered when it comes to handing out his biggest prize.
Consider his taste lately in the best-picture category. During the past decade, the academy has alternated between giving its statue to a blockbuster (defined as a film that earns more than $100 million at the box office) and giving it the very next year to a small-budget film few have seen. Last year's Argo, for instance, scored a best-picture win and $136 million at the box office; the previous year, The Artist won and took in just $45 million.
While it may technically be David's turn to beat Goliath at Oscar this year, no studio wants an award winner that few saw. Studios are feeling increasing pressure to turn contenders into at least minor hits, particularly when critics aren't uniform in their praise.
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"The academy can be swayed by box office, especially now that the push is on to include more mainstream movies," says Jeff Bock of Exhibitor Relations. He says the best-picture field's recent expansion to 10 potential nominees "leaves a door open for popular movies to be recognized."
But should ticket sales matter? "With just 10 weeks left in the year, box office matters a lot more than it should in an Oscar race supposedly based on merit," says Gary Susman, columnist for film site Moviefone.com.
"That's especially true with movies that are on the fence," he says. "As most of the major festivals have come and gone, the gatekeeping function they serve now gets handed over to local critics and to the moviegoing public."
Already, analysts say, three movies in particular have resonated with mainstream audiences:
• Lee Daniels' The Butler. Like The Help in 2011, The Butler got a mid-August release and became an unlikely hit, collecting $115 million. Awards site Goldderby.com lists it eighth among films likely to get a best-picture nomination.
• Gravity. The Sandra Bullock space odyssey thundered to $231 million, making it the most popular film so far likely to be nominated. Goldderby.com ranks it as No. 2 among front-runners, with 5-to-1 odds it will win.
• Captain Phillips. The true high-seas tale starring Tom Hanks has gotten sterling reviews and is at $91 million. It will surge past $100 million this week, helping propel it to No. 4 on the site's handicapping scorecard.
The film that analysts consider the one to beat, 12 Years a Slave, has done a respectable $17 million in 1,100 theaters across the country, which represents about a third of the rollout for big-studio films. But the drama must catch fire at turnstiles to cross $100 million.
Unlike the years of Titanic (1997) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), in which the movies collected awards as thoroughly as they did profits, "we don't have one film that fits the full bill, from pedigree to box office," says Goldderby.com's Tom O'Neil.
"The problem is, we don't have a movie yet that has all the ingredients, which has to include box office," he says. "The good thing about that is it gives the race more drama."
Oscar's best-picture winners have been alternating from blockbuster to art-house favorite since 2004. Here's a look at best-picture winners and their box office going back a decade:
2012: Argo, $136 million
2011: The Artist, $45 million
2010: The King's Speech, $136 million
2009: The Hurt Locker, $17 million
2008: Slumdog Millionaire, $141 million
2007: No Country for Old Men, $74 million
2006: The Departed, $132 million
2005: Crash, $55 million
2004: Million Dollar Baby, $101 million
2003: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, $377 million
Source: Box Office Mojo