Oscars 2015: Big Spectacle Versus Small Box Office

Neil Patrick Harris has much to overcome when he steps onstage at Hollywood's Dolby Theatre Sunday to host the 87th Academy Awards.

While the "How I Met Your Mother" song-and-dance-man (he's promised a big musical number for Oscar) has proved himself an able awards show emcee thanks to past stints helming the Tony and Emmy Awards telecasts, he takes on the Oscar gig in the shadow of Ellen DeGeneres who last year enchanted audiences with her easygoing banter and ability to take a star-studded selfie.

Add the task of ushering a ceremony set to fete a collection of films regular theater attendees have little recognition of other than from award season headlines decrying the lack of racial diversity in the premiere acting races.

In order for Harris to claim a victory Sunday, he'll have to trump the small box office awareness of best picture nominees with glittering onstage razzle-dazzle and carryover splendor from the red carpet.

Vying for best picture are "Birdman" and "The Grand Budapest Hotel" (leading the nominations with nine apiece), alongside "Boyhood," ''Whiplash," ''The Theory of Everything," ''The Imitation Game," ''American Sniper" and "Selma." All are worthy contenders for the Oscar statuette. All, aside from one standout, are not box office hits.

The average domestic haul for a 2015 best picture nominee is $75 million. If that number appears respectable keep in mind the top money-earner is "American Sniper" with $309 million, while the lowest is "Whiplash" with $10 million. The two favorites in the category are "Birdman" ($39 million) and "Boyhood" ($25 million). "Sniper" is the only contender to pass the $100 million mark.

Hardly the stuff of juggernaut franchises. To find such fare nominated at this year's Oscars check the race for best visual effects, where "Guardians of the Galaxy" ($333 million domestic box office), "Interstellar" ($187M), "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" ($208M), "X-Men: Days of Future Past" ($233M) and "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" ($259M) battle for top honors.

Such disparity between the wide-appeal blockbusters and those films nominated only highlights the divide between the tastes of regular American moviegoers and the roughly 6,000 Academy members eligible to vote each year.

While there's no denying the merits of the best picture nominees, the bigger draw for audiences tuning in to watch Sunday's telecast on ABC is the spectacle of red carpet gowns and possibility of unscripted moments.

In other words, it's a chance to ogle celebrities. None more so than those nominated in the acting categories, all of whom must be relieved the weeks of parading on crimson rugs and schmoozing voters is finally coming to an end.

Favorite to take the best actor Oscar is Michael Keaton, whose performance in "Birdman" has already garnered a Golden Globe Award and numerous critic's circle honors. Gaining momentum on Keaton is critical favorite Eddie Redmayne for his moving portrayal of physicist Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything," and fan favorite Bradley Cooper for his turn as U.S. Navy Seal Chris Kyle in "American Sniper." Also competing in the category is Steve Carrell for "Foxcatcher" and Benedict Cumberbatch in "The Imitation Game."

A five-time nominee with no previous wins, Julianne Moore leads the best actress race with her role as a woman diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's Disease in "Still Alice." Sweeping the season thanks to her soul-baring portrayal, Moore has already been awarded top acting honors by the National Board of Review, and at the Golden Globes and Screen Actor's Guild Awards. Hoping for a category upset Sunday are fellow nominees Marion Cotillard ("Two Days, One Night"), Felicity Jones ("The Theory of Everything"), Rosamund Pike ("Gone Girl") and Reese Witherspoon ("Wild").

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