oscar moviesThe Oscars like to pretend they are entirely about merit, not commerce. They are not, after all, the People's Choice Awards, which can be predicted from box office earnings. Indeed, sometimes a movie like "The Hurt Locker," which almost no one bought tickets to see, can win Best Picture over an "Avatar." And yet, it would be naïve to think that Academy voters don't have a film's box office returns in the back of their minds as they decide how they'll vote.

It's been clear for the last few years, ever since they expanded the Best Picture field from five to as many as 10 nominees in 2009, that the Academy wants to be more accommodating to popular taste. For one thing, they want viewers to watch the awards show, and they're more likely to do so if they have a rooting interest in at least one of the movies up for top prizes. Last year, nominations for such $100-million-plus hits as "Gravity," "Captain Phillips," "The Wolf of Wall Street," and "American Hustle" helped pull in viewers. But this year, hardly any of the leading contenders in the top categories has earned more than $50 million.

That could change over the next week or so, as several new Oscar hopefuls hit theaters. Some are potential big hits ("Into the Woods," "Unbroken"), while others ("Selma," "American Sniper," "Big Eyes") may earn enough as specialty movies to make Oscar voters feel less elitist and snobbish for nominating them or their stars. Plus, the Oscar hopefuls already playing have a chance to increase their take among holiday moviegoers, thus raising their visibility among awards voters.

Just how this will all play out is hard to guess because of Sony's decision last week not to release "The Interview" in theaters after the major chains balked under threat of violence from the hackers who've been making a PR hash out of Sony for the last month. For all the complaints by actors, directors, and politicians about knuckling under and allowing a foreign power to dictate Americans' moviegoing choices, the people who actually run Hollywood must have been secretly relieved. A lot of the executives at rival studios did not want "The Interview" released either, lest the threats of violence (or worse, actual violence) keep moviegoers out of the multiplex and hurt everyone else's box office. Instead, they have a scenario where 3,000 otherwise booked screens have now been freed up. There could be a minor free-for-all between now and Christmas as the distributors of upcoming wide releases The Gambler," "Into the Woods," "Unbroken," and perhaps some smaller films try to fill the venue vacuum.

Already, there's word that "Big Eyes," once booked for a limited release before opening wide, will jump into the fray with a wide Christmas Day release. So far, few awards organizations have taken Tim Burton's biopic seriously except for the Golden Globes, which have separate categories for comedy. Now, however, the attention brought to the film by its wide release should only help the Oscar chances of stars Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz.

If "Unbroken," booked to open on 3,000 screens on Christmas Day, becomes a sizable hit -- an iffy proposition, given its lack of on-screen star power and its grim premise -- it'll look like sweet revenge for Angelina Jolie, who was snubbed for major awards nominations for the film over the last few weeks. Commercial success would prove she's a director to be reckoned with and could even make Academy members feel good about nominating the movie despite its lack of critical support.

"Into the Woods," scheduled for a similarly wide release the same day, seems to be hoping for a repeat of the success of fellow holiday musical "Les Miserables" a couple years ago. That one didn't get much critical love, but it wound up earning $149 million and earned a Supporting Actress Oscar for Anne Hathaway. "Woods" wouldn't have to earn anywhere near that amount to secure a Supporting nod for Meryl Streep, but given the Academy's ambivalence toward musicals, "Woods" and Streep will look like much safer choices if they're backed by the box office.

Even so, it'll take a lot of tickets to propel, say, "American Sniper" back into the race. It'll have to open on a lot more than its currently-booked four screens and make a decent box office splash in order to win back the momentum it lost by being almost completely snubbed by voters for the Screen Actors Guild, the Golden Globes, and this past week, the Critics' Choice Awards. In the past, director Clint Eastwood's Oscar hopefuls have been able to open at the last minute and win critics over before expanding nationwide, but since "Sniper" lacks that critical support, it'll need better box office to convince Oscar voters that they may have been overlooking a worthy movie.

The same is true of "Inherent Vice," which is doing well already on a just five screens (it's earned $600,000 in two weeks), but which may need a serious commercial boost when it opens wide after Christmas to convince voters that the movie's not just another idiosyncratic inside joke between director Paul Thomas Anderson and star Joaquin Phoenix. That's the conclusion voters seemed to come to a couple years ago when the pair's movie "The Master" earned ecstatic praise from critics but failed to catch on among audiences.

On the other hand, if "Selma" (currently booked to open in 19 theaters) does even moderately well, it'll confirm for voters the acclaim the film has already earned from reviewers and the Globes and Critic's Choices. While it seems patronizing to compare the civil-rights drama to last year's ultimate winner, "12 Years a Slave," you can bet that Academy voters will be making that comparison in their minds. That film earned a respectable $57 million, but this year, the bar is much lower; a good $20 million would do, or even just half of that before the Oscar nominations are announced in mid-January.

After all, this year's awards frontrunners, "Boyhood" and "Birdman," have earned just $24 million and $22 million, respectively. Both could increase their tallies over the holiday, but at this point, neither has to worry about grabbing a large number of nominations.

Among other awards hopefuls currently in theaters, "Wild" enjoyed a big boost this weekend, with the Reese Witherspoon drama nearly doubling last weekend's take to grab an estimated $4.2 million, for a three-week total of $7.2 million. Modest boosts came this weekend to "Foxcatcher" and "The Imitation Game" as each upped its theater count; the Steve Carell drama has now earned $4.4 million over six weeks, while the newer Benedict Cumberbatch hopeful has taken in $3.2 million in four weeks. Mike Leigh's "Mr. Turner," featuring possible Best Actor nominee Timothy Spall, opened this weekend with a promising $109,000 on five screens.

On the flip side, "The Theory of Everything" is starting to flag after seven weeks. It's take this weekend was down 36 percent from a week ago. Still, it's earned $19.8 million so far, putting it in the same league as "Boyhood" and "Birdman" and all but confirming nominations for stars Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. "Whiplash," after 11 weeks, is also flagging, but it's only earned $5.1 million in all that time, making nominations for anyone besides Supporting Actor contender J.K. Simmons unlikely.

Some awards hopefuls are not positioned to benefit from the largess of holiday moviegoers. Jennifer Aniston's Best Actress chances for "Cake" won't be helped, since the movie isn't going wide until late January, about a week after the Oscar nominations are announced. The frontrunner in her category is Julianne Moore, but Moore's "Still Alice" isn't opening until after the Oscar nominations either.

The biggest hit to date among the Oscar hopefuls is "Gone Girl," still playing on 350 screens after 12 weeks, with a total so far of $165 million. That's real money, by Hollywood standards, enough to smooth over critical objections to the thriller's narrative manipulativeness and contentious sexual politics and to ensure nominations for Best Picture, Director (David Fincher), Adapted Screenplay (Gillian Flynn), and Actress (Rosamund Pike). After that, the biggest hit is "The Grand Budapest Hotel," with $59 million. It's the only major contender not still in theaters (its run ended in August), but that figure is huge for an independent movie and impressive enough to ensure voters remember it for Best Picture, Best Director (Wes Anderson), Best Original Screenplay, and Best Actor (Ralph Fiennes). Indeed, its surprising success at the Critic's Choice nominations last week (it earned 11 nods, second only to the 13 earned by "Birdman") confirm the impact of the indie hit.

Again, box office is no guarantee of extra awards-season consideration. If it were, we'd be talking about multiple potential nominations for Christopher Nolan's flawed but lofty-minded "Interstellar" ($171 million to date) instead of predicting yet another shutout for Nolan in the major categories. But box office does provide Oscar voters with the same things it provides studio executives: insurance, validation, a hedge against second-guessing their own judgment.

categories Movies, Oscars, Box Office