Oscar 2014: Art Vs. Commerce–and Viewers?

Last year’s high ratings for Ellen DeGeneres’ Oscars hosting show could be a very hard act to follow this year.

The big challenge is how lure younger viewers to a show which is dominated by specialty fare, low-budget indies, some featuring stars, while others do not.

There were efforts to court younger viewers with hosts like Seth MacFarlane, Jon Stewart, Chris Rock, and the pairing of James Franco and Anne Hathaway, all of which failed.

According to Variety, the most winning formula for the Oscars wasn’t mimicking MTV, but offering family-friendly gags–DeGeneres style.

The producers of this year’s ceremony have tapped Hollywood’s awards show host Neil Patrick Harris for his first try at the Oscars.  Like Hugh Jackman and Billy Crystal, Harris can sing and dance and improvise with the audience. If the stars look like they’re having fun, so do viewers, which is why Ellen’s selfie and pizza-delivery skits were such hits.

But Harris might already be scrounging around for material, because the Academy has managed to nominate one of its least-commercial best picture slates ever: six indie films (“Boyhood,” “Foxcatcher,” “The Imitation Game,” “The Theory of Everything,” “Whiplash” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) and two studio features (“Selma” and “American Sniper”) that have yet to open in wide release.

So far, the highest-grossing movie of the best-picture nominees is “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” at a modest $59 million domestically, though both “American Sniper” and “Selma” would surpass that figure by Oscar time.

These titles don’t come with immediate name recognition, and make up the lowest box office since 2009, when the Oscars expanded the category in an effort to include more popular films.

In 2011, the nine best picture nominees boasted a combined gross of $519 million on the day of nominations, and that was considered weak.  This year, that total is at $203.1 million, according toBox-Office Mojo–or put another way, the eight best picture nominees have a combined audience that’s smaller than “The Lego Movie.”

The expanded best picture category did not make room for David Fincher’s “Gone Girl,” which only landed a lone nomination for Rosamund Pike, a well-crafted crowd-pleaser that grossed $167 million.

Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” is a huge hit with loyal following, and “Unbroken” would have guaranteed Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s attendance.

“Guardians of the Galaxy,” which got a WGA adapted screenplay nomination, and “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1″ are mass entertainment.

Even Disney’s “Into the Woods,” which received a Golden Globe nomination, could have helped popularize the mix of this year’s best picture contenders.

Variety suggests that snother route to attracting younger viewers may be through the best song category. There was a wealth of performers to choose from that would have made the Grammys jealous, but voters thought differently. Who wouldn’t tune in to see Lorde sing “Yellow Flicker Beat” from “Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1″?

These other acts also won’t be at the Oscars: Lana Del Rey on the soundtrack for “Big Eyes,” Alicia Keys and Kendrick Lamar (“The Amazing Spider-Man 2″), Sia (“Annie”), Coldplay (“Miracles”) and the Muppets, who would have been singing a duet with Celine Dion.

Adam Levine will perform “Lost Stars” from “Begin Again,” but it’s not a song that people know or heard on the radio.

None of this griping is meant to take away from the accomplishments of this year’s acting nominees, which offered high notes at the movies. The best actor race, in particular, is tense. Benedict Cumberbatch, the Internet’s boyfriend, scored his first Oscar nomination for playing Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game,” and he’s up against his fellow Brit Eddie Redmayne for portraying Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything,” Michael Keaton in Birdman in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s comedy, Steve Carell in “Foxcatcher” and Bradley Cooper’s career-best work in “America Sniper,” which should be a big hit by the time the Oscars roll around.

The Oscars, like the moviemaking business, is facing an identity crisis.  When “The Dark Knight” got snubbed in 2008, fans were outraged. But if most people haven’t heard of the nominees, they aren’t going to watch, and the business will lose more young viewers to indifference, because TV and video games are engaging them in a way that the movies aren’t.