Academy vs. public?

So if the customer is always right, who really decides what the "best " films are? Is the academy out of touch with the public or does the public have terrible taste? (Darren Thompson / For The Times)

Quick trivia No. 1: What are the only three films since 1980 to win both the box-office crown and the Academy Award for best picture? Read on while you ponder.

As the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences prepares its perennial pageant, one might notice something lacking among the top nominees: popularity. Of the five top-grossing movies of 2007 ("Transformers" and sequels in the "Spider-Man," "Shrek," "Pirates" and "Harry Potter" franchises), none contends for any high-profile Oscars. It's not until No. 27 on the current list, according to figures by Box Office Mojo, that a best picture nominee pops up.

Quick trivia No. 2: What is that film?

By Jove, it's "Juno," with a surprising $102 million, as of the Oscar nomination announcement.

Vivian Sobchack, professor of critical media studies in the department of film, television and digital media at UCLA, paused from articulating her full title to stand up for populism: "What counts as a best picture or a good movie depends on why you're watching. 'Spider-Man 3' was nothing. 'There Will Be Blood' is a masterpiece. But after a hard day at work, 'Porky's' or anything with Will Ferrell is going to take your mind off the economy."

The top five grossers averaged nearly $316 million each domestically. The five best picture nominees -- from "Juno" to No. 120 at the box office, "There Will Be Blood" -- have so far pulled in $252 million, collectively. To be fair, "Blood" and fellow nominee "Atonement" are on slow rollouts, so their final numbers should be significantly higher. Also among the nominees are "No Country for Old Men" and "Michael Clayton."

The Rotten Tomatoes critics' average, or Tomatometer, for this year's nominees is 90%. Critical average for the box-office champs: 57%. Meanwhile, the box office's No. 13, "Wild Hogs" (15% critical average) grossed $168 million, or more than four of the five nominees combined. In fact, two Razzie nominees for worst picture, "Norbit" and "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry," grossed more than any of the best picture contenders so far.

So if the customer is always right, who really decides what the "best" films are? Is the academy out of touch with the public or does the public have terrible taste?

"The academy doesn't necessarily reflect the demographic that goes to the movies the most. There aren't a lot of kids or young adults in it," said Chad Hartigan, a box office analyst at Reel Source, adding, "I think America does have terrible taste. They get the urge to see a movie and they see whatever's out."

But before we declare the academy the grand pooh-bah of quality, let's recall some of the past eye-glazers to have taken home the top prize: "Driving Miss Daisy," "Chariots of Fire," "Out of Africa," anyone?

Quick trivia No. 3: Who has won more directing Oscars: Akira Kurosawa, Charles Chaplin, Orson Welles or Mel Gibson?

If you said Malibu Mel, you are one lethal weapon of a film buff.

Film historian David Thomson, author of "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film," points out that "In 1958, 'Gigi' won the Oscar -- 'Vertigo' and 'Touch of Evil' were not even nominated. You can play that game a lot."

While Sobchack says industry members watch films in different ways than do average viewers, focusing on craft, Thomson goes further: "The academy has, over the years, created a new genre, which you could call an 'academy film': major production values, doing fairly well at the box office -- you'd have a hard time finding a total failure that has won best picture -- but it probably won't be a champ."

In other words, there may be a "Gigi" in the Oscar roll but not a "Gigli."

Paul Dergarabedian, president of Media by Numbers, agrees the winners tend to make some money but often as a result of their awards. "For instance, 'American Beauty' -- that film was like at $75 million; once it was nominated and won, it earned another $50 million or so."

In fact, the five nominated films have been buoyed by an average of nearly $8 million in grosses in the first 10 days after the announcements -- well over their individual paces to that point, almost as if they were enjoying second openings. However, even that "Oscar bounce" goes only so high: These best-of-breeds still have bitten off only about one-sixth of the big dogs' take. "There's this inverse rule that if you make a lot of money, chances are you aren't going to get an Oscar and vice versa," says Dergarabedian. "As I say, it's the difference between cinematic fast food and fine dining."

Longtime critic and documentary filmmaker Richard Schickel agrees that a certain pedigree has developed for the Oscars dog-and-pony show. "In a way it's hard cheese for the Oscars telecast, celebrating a bunch of movies the general audiences haven't seen and have no interest in seeing. But people still tune in. It runs on the glamour . . . not the content."

But if a lack of acclaim doesn't slow down the "Spider-Man 3s" of the world, maverick filmmakers don't seem to be suffering too badly either. In the end, the chasm between Oscar and box-office success may be trivial.

"The awards don't matter at all; they're a brilliant publicity scheme where the academy gets people to think about movies," Thomson says. "The important thing is what movies get made, and we're doing pretty well there, when Julian Schnabel and Paul Thomas Anderson can make whatever movie they want." Trivia No. 1 answer: "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" (2001); "Titanic" (1997); and "Forrest Gump" (1994).