The Academy Awards will shine the spotlight on a crop of best picture nominees that isn't short on smaller movies with offbeat, personal stories.
From a film about a fading movie star struggling to gain artistic credibility ("Birdman") to a picture about a young drummer waging psychological warfare with a sadistic music teacher ("Whiplash") and another centered on a kid growing up in an average American family ("Boyhood") — this year's nominees included several anti-blockbusters that left critics buzzing.
But those pictures largely failed to attract moviegoers in a year that, overall, produced among the lowest box-office tallies in recent memory.
That could spell trouble for ABC's Oscars telecast Feb. 22. The annual show does best when Americans have big hits such as "Titanic" or "Avatar" to root for. And coming off the decade-high ratings of last year's Ellen DeGeneres-helmed show, Neil Patrick Harris will have his work cut out for him when he hosts next month.
"When the audience has skin in the game, and they have a movie to root for that they've actually seen, certainly it makes for a more compelling viewing experiencing," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for entertainment data firm Rentrak.
There's evidence that the Academy Awards' ratings get a boost in years that feature best picture contenders that performed strongly. Famously, the 1998 telecast benefited from the $1.84 billion-grossing "Titanic" taking home 11 awards. It was the most-watched Oscars in history, with 55 million viewers.
This year, none of the eight best picture nominees has topped $100 million at the domestic box office. Audiences' lower awareness of those films could make pulling off a successful awards show tricky. A more nimble, less loyal modern TV audience could also sap ratings.
"If I were a betting man, I'd have money on the telecast being down in viewers," said Brad Adgate, an analyst at ad firm Horizon Media. "Part of it is a matter of viewing patterns. But it still will be the most popular show on television that is not the NFL."
Maintaining healthy ratings is key for the Beverly Hills-based Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, whose roughly $92 million in annual Oscar-related revenue primarily comes from selling the domestic and international television rights to the telecast.
The academy declined to comment. ABC did not respond to requests for comment.
Last year's Oscars nabbed 43.7 million viewers, the most in a decade, buoyed by a slate of best picture nominees that included hits such as "Gravity" and "American Hustle." The nine nominees grossed about $813 million at the domestic box office, with four topping $100 million, according to Rentrak.
By comparison, the smallest audience in the last decade was in 2008 when just 32 million people tuned in. That year the crop of best picture nominees included the dark dramas "There Will Be Blood," "No Country For Old Men" and "Michael Clayton." The only nominee to top $100 million at the domestic box office was "Juno," a quirky comedy starring Ellen Page and Michael Cera.
This year's best picture contenders had grossed about $205 million collectively at the domestic box office through Wednesday, the day before nominations were announced. That's by far the lowest total since the best picture category expanded from five films in 2010 in an effort partly designed to broaden the telecast's appeal. In 2012, the nine nominees had grossed about $519 million by the eve of the nominations announcement.
"Clearly there's no 'Titanic' in this crop of nominees," Adgate said. "It was a lean year for Hollywood. And we've seen that there's been a little bit of an erosion with awards shows recently. The Emmys were off this year. The Golden Globes were off."
Among the eight best picture nominees, only one film, the Bradley Cooper-starring "American Sniper," is anticipated to be a major commercial success. The Warner Bros. movie, directed by Clint Eastwood, focuses on Navy SEAL Chris Kyle's experience as a sharpshooter in Iraq and his relationship back home with his wife.
"American Sniper," which is expanding to 3,555 screens this holiday weekend, is expected to easily top $50 million at the domestic box office over the four-day stretch, according to people who have analyzed pre-release audience surveys.
Of course, when it comes to ratings, hosts matter, too — for better or for worse.
Even a telecast with big-name nominees can deliver lackluster ratings. Despite benefiting from several best picture nominees that were box-office hits — including "Black Swan" and "Inception" — the 2011 show was hurt by the infamously poor hosting duo of Anne Hathaway and James Franco. Just 37.9 million people tuned in, the smallest audience of the last half-decade.
Then there are the success stories.
DeGeneres was tapped for last year's Oscars telecast and helped the show achieve audience gold, pulling in big ratings with 43.7 million total viewers. The show catered to the Twitter generation, with DeGeneres ordering pizza for the attendees and tweeting out a mega-selfie with Cooper, Meryl Streep, Angelina Jolie and others.
But even playing to the younger crowd didn't do much to boost the Academy Awards' ratings in the advertiser-preferred 18 to 49 demographic: Last year's show was essentially even with 2013's Seth MacFarlane-hosted telecast.
And with the median audience age for the Oscars telecast rising through the years — from 45 in 2000 to 52.5 last year — the need to build up the show's clout with younger viewers is increasingly important.
The academy's choice this year, Harris, appeals to younger audiences. The former star of CBS' "How I Met Your Mother" has mostly been a favorite with critics when hosting the Tony Awards and the Emmy Awards. The 2009 Tony telecast — Harris' first — saw viewership gains of 18% over the previous year. The Emmys broadcast experienced similar improvements in the two years that he hosted that show.
"I don't think there's a concern of him as a host," Adgate said. "It's the same challenge that it will always be: to keep the pace going and to keep it lively at a time when people have so many other viewing options."
Still, not everyone in Hollywood is lamenting the academy's embrace of quirkier films this year.
"Birdman" director Alejandro G. Iñárritu told The Times on Thursday that he was heartened to see smaller, more personal films snagging nominations.
"I think it's good news for all of us who love cinema," he said.