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Challenging fare means little buzz for Oscar's best-picture nominees

LOS ANGELES - One film has an oblique ending that's left some viewers dissatisfied and others floored by its profundity. The other features a slowly developing plot and a brutal, operatically violent finale.

'No Country for Old Men' and 'There Will Be Blood' are both gorgeous and bold, expertly crafted and intelligently acted. But most moviegoers have seen neither of them - and they never will - even though they're the two leading contenders for best picture at the Academy Awards.

Oscar-nominated films are often small, dark and unintended for mass audiences; they're about art, after all, not commerce. But that's especially true of this year's crop, which has little mainstream buzz and among the lowest box-office totals in recent years.

The exception, of course, is the crowd-pleasing comedy 'Juno,' starring the hugely appealing Ellen Page as a quick-witted, pregnant teen. It had a budget of about $2.5 million and just crossed the $100 million mark at the box office. It is far and away the most financially successful of the five.

Four of the movies nominated last week for best picture - 'Juno,' 'Michael Clayton,' 'No Country for Old Men' and 'There Will Be Blood' - got the so-called 'Oscar bump' that comes from audiences checking them out the following weekend. (The sweeping romance 'Atonement' dropped slightly.)

Still, they've only combined to make about $246.3 million domestically. In contrast, 'The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King' already had grossed about $364 million all by itself by the time it won best picture in 2004.

In terms of ticket sales, about 7.3 million people have seen 'No Country' (from Miramax and Paramount Vantage, a division of Viacom Inc.) and 2 million have seen 'There Will Be Blood' (also from Paramount Vantage), compared with the approximately 51 million who saw the third 'Rings' picture in theaters by Oscar night.

'I had someone ask me the other day, 'Are academy voters out of touch in honoring these films that aren't popular with audiences?' said Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box office tracker Media By Numbers. 'But they're not supposed to be popular. They're honoring the cinematic merit of these films. (Or else) 'Spider-Man 3' would have the most nominations. ...

'I always say it's either cinematic fast food or cinematic fine dining - you pick what you want,' Dergarabedian added. 'And Oscar tends to honor the films that give a cinematic fine dining experience.'

The 2006 nominees did a bit better with a cumulative gross of about $297 million, thanks largely to the winner, 'The Departed,' which ended up with more than $132 million. 'The Departed' also had a revered director in Martin Scorsese and an all-star cast including Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Jack Nicholson.

The nominees from 2005 combined for about $245 million with the winner, the ensemble drama 'Crash,' making only about $55 million. But that year had huge buzz thanks to 'Brokeback Mountain,' the gay cowboy romance, which had America talking regardless of their interest in art-house films. The perceived front-runner until the moment the envelope was opened, it made $83 million.

But it's not just the contenders in the best picture category that are drawing specialized crowds. 'Michael Clayton' is the only film with multiple acting nominations: for its star, George Clooney, and supporting actors Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton. The suspenseful corporate thriller from first-time director Tony Gilroy has made a decent $41.5 million.