Oscar night: Big deal, big stars and ... well, little movies

Every Academy Award telecast is interesting ... but some are much more so than others. Now comes the this year's show Sunday (March 4), with a clever host and batch of movies that are big in quality, but not in drawing a crowd. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

It's Academy Award
time again, offering everything that viewers want -- almost.

Sunday's ceremony is
likely to have glamour, glitter and great gowns. It will have humor,
via Jimmy Kimmel, and music, via Mary J. Blige, Andra Day, Common and

And big, popular
movies? Well, that's the tricky part.

Before the
nominations came out, Kimmel had a basic desire: “I want movies
that people have seen.”

He got a few, but
not many. Two best-picture nominees -- “Dunkirk” and “Get Out”
-- are box-office hits; the other seven fall somewhere between fairly
successful and thoroughly obscure.

For quality-movie
fans, this is good news. It was a year filled with modest-budgeted

And for others? As
Variety, the show-business trade paper, put it, this “should send
shivers up the spines of ABC executives.”

They simply want a
big audience for their telecast – something they get when the
movies are well-known. Kimmel wants films he can joke about.

Last year -- in his
first time hosting -- he sensed that the studio audience “hadn't
seen a lot of the movies that they voted for.” A joke about the
“Moonlight” movie “fell somewhat flat, because people didn't
get the reference.” Ironically, “Moonlight” then won for best

Certainly, Kimmel
will have other things to joke about Sunday, including:

-- Last year's
mix-up, which at first had “La La Land” -- not “Moonlight” --
announced as best picture. “If it happens again, literally everyone
at ABC should be fired,” he said.

-- The sexual-abuse
and gender-equity issues that have rocked Hollywood. At the Golden
Globes in January, host Seth Meyers found ways to make a dead-serious
subject funny. “I was like, 'I have to see what Seth says and how
it is received,'” Kimmel said. “And I do thank him for being that
litmus test.”

-- And his mock feud
with Matt Damon. At the Emmys, Damon kept pointing out that Kimmel
was a loser; at the Oscars, Kimmel mocked the “Chinese pigtail
movie” Damon made. “He was okay with it,” Kimmel said. “I'm
not sure why he was okay with it, but he does have a very good sense
of humor.”

But joking about the
nominated movies? That's tough if the audience hasn't seen them.

The biggest Oscar
audience, the Nielsen ratings say, was in 1998, with 55.2 million
viewers. That was when “Titanic” -- which would eventually gross
$659 million in North America – swept the awards.

The smallest were 32
million in 2008 and 32.9 million last year; those were when the
winners were less popular -- “No Country For Old Men” ($74
million) and “Moonlight” ($28 million).

This year's films
are a mixed lot, according to North American estimates by

“Dunkirk” and
“Get Out” soared to $188 and $176 million, but the others are far
behind. That's $78 million for “The Post,” $54 million for “The
Shape of Water,” $49 million for “Three Billboards Outside
Ebbing, Missouri,” $47 million for “Lady Bird,” $41 million for
“Darkest Hour,” $18 million for “The Phantom Thread” and $15
million for “Call Me By My Name.”

Those numbers are
fine for indie movies ... but hardly enough to draw a big Oscar
audience. Add them up and you have $666 million; “Star Wars: The
Last Jedi,” alone, has made $619 million.

Yes, “Jedi” was
nominated for its score, sound, sound-editing and visual effects.
“Beauty and the Beast” ($504 million) is nominated for costumes
and production design .... “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” ($390
million) for visual effects .... “Coco” ($208 million) for a song
and best animated feature.

Each was more
popular than any best-picture nominee. So was “Wonder Woman,”
which drew praise, $418 million and zero nominations.

For fun, Kimmel
might have to scramble – to concoct something like last year, when
a Hollywood tour bus ended up at the Oscars. “You must keep the
show interesting, have an element that could go etither way,” he
said. “That could have been an absolute disaster – and some feel
it was.”