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OSCAR! WE HARDLY KNOW YA! // The best pictures you've never seen

How many of this year's best-picture nominees for the 69th annual Academy Awards have you seen?

If you answered "all of them," you're either a movie addict, a film critic or auditioning for Liar, Liar II.

Hollywood enjoyed a record year at the box office in 1996 with $5.8-billion in ticket sales. Oscar voters didn't need to be shown the money when balloting commenced for this year's top prize.

Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences detoured from the mainstream with their nominations this year, with more small, independently produced films among the honorees than ever before. The offbeat nature of films such as Shine, Fargo, Breaking the Waves and Sling Blade _ plus timid release strategies by their distributors _ kept them as foreign to some moviegoers as anything from overseas.

Those films finally came to Tampa Bay, weeks after they first gained attention in major cities or festivals. Usually at select theaters, which is an industry term for "we don't have enough money for 1,500 prints of the movie."

Fewer moviegoers have seen Monday night's candidates for best picture than any year since 1984, based on an estimated 56-million tickets sold for The English Patient, Jerry Maguire, Shine, Fargo and Secrets and Lies combined. Last year's loud crowd pleaser Independence Day eclipsed that number by itself.

The romantic comedy Jerry Maguire accounted for more than half of the nominees' theater admissions. If that romantic comedy wins the Oscar, it would immediately become the sixth-highest moneymaker ($140-plus-million) ever to be named best picture. Otherwise, the Academy's choice likely will be one of the lowest-grossing triumphs in modern Hollywood history.

"Certainly, it is a year that has the lowest attendance (for best-picture nominees) we've seen since 1984," said Tom Borys, vice president of development for Entertainment Data Inc., a Los Angeles firm that analyzes amusement economics.

That year, the Oscar winner was Amadeus ($51.6-million gross) in a race that included A Passage to India, The Killing Fields, Places in the Heart and A Soldier's Story. Borys estimated that 51-million tickets were sold for those films combined.

Pre-awards buzz indicates that Miramax Films' The English Patient is favored to win the best picture award Monday, after its Golden Globe victory in January and a Director's Guild of America prize for Anthony Minghella last week. Twelve nominations _ nearly twice as many as the runners-up Shine and Fargo _ are a tip-off of the Academy's positive feelings about the film.

"The English Patient is a clear favorite, with more nominations than any other film," Borys said. As usual, he had a statistic at hand to support his statement: "The film with the most nominations has won 13 out of the last 14 times."

Audiences haven't warmed to the lengthy, complex World War II tale as easily. The English Patient is approaching the $60-million mark in U.S. ticket sales with its expected box office boost after the nominations were announced. Not a flop, by most standards. However, Minghella's film is expected to settle somewhere around the $75.6-million gross recorded by last year's Braveheart, which was the first Oscar champion in seven years that didn't top the coveted $100-million mark.

A victory by Shine, Fargo or Secrets and Lies would linger in Academy Awards infamy.

An Oscar in this category means an average increase of 17 percent in box office receipts, according to Entertainment Data figures. Shine, Fargo and especially Secrets and Lies would still have a tough time catching up to the least-seen winner in recent history; The Last Emperor with $44.0-million in box office receipts in 1987.

Money doesn't seem to be a factor in this year's balloting, unless you count Cuba Gooding Jr.'s catch phrase that carried him to a best supporting actor nomination for Jerry Maguire. He's favored to become the sixth African-American actor to claim an Oscar, joining Hattie McDaniel, Sidney Poitier, Louis Gossett Jr., Whoopi Goldberg and Denzel Washington in that distinction.

A victory by Gooding would also be notable in light of last year's controversy at the Academy Awards. Rev. Jesse Jackson led a short-lived protest against the academy in response to alleged exclusionary tactics against non-whites in the film industry. Only one African-American _ a short-film producer _ was nominated then, which ignited that reaction.

Although there is a new trend among academy voters toward "small" films, some of the old voting habits should remain. There's still room for at least one sentimental vote and it's expected to be in favor of Lauren Bacall as best supporting actress for The Mirror Has Two Faces. It's her first nomination in a storied career and her performance won a Golden Globe. A win by Bacall could also soothe the rift between the academy and that film's director/star, Barbra Streisand, who has openly accused the Oscars of gender discrimination by not citing her as a best director nominee before.

British actors have been darlings of the voters in recent years, with prizes to stars such as Daniel Day-Lewis, Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins and Jeremy Irons in the past decade. This year, Geoffrey Rush has swept through the post-year awards as best actor for his odd and precise portrayal of tormented piano genius David Helfgott in Shine.

Another best actor nominee, Billy Bob Thornton, has been very evident in the pre-Oscar hype for his performance of an emotionally stunted killer in Sling Blade. It may have been enough attention coming a little too late, as was the case in the best-picture race last year with Babe. Thornton could pull the upset, if voters decide to keep the prizes on this side of the Atlantic.

The same goes for Frances McDormand in the best actress race for her role as a pregnant police chief in Fargo. Previous awards have mostly cited Brenda Blethyn's work in the British drama Secrets and Lies, including the Golden Globes. Blethyn's track record gives her a slight edge, but McDormand could benefit from the home-country advantage.

THE OSCAR NOMINEES: Entries with a + are Steve Persall's predictions of what the Academy will choose.

BEST PICTURE

The English Patient

Fargo

Jerry Maguire

Secrets & Lies

Shine

BEST DIRECTOR

+ Anthony Minghella "The English Patient"

Joel Coen "Fargo"

Milos Forman "The People vs. Larry Flynt"

Mike Leigh "Secrets & Lies"

Scott Hicks "Shine"

BEST ACTRESS

+ Brenda Blethyn "Secrets & Lies"

Diane Keaton "Marvin's Room"

Frances McDormand "Fargo"

Kristin Scott Thomas "The English Patient"

Emily Watson "Breaking the Waves"

BEST ACTOR

Tom Cruise "Jerry Maguire"

Ralph Fiennes "The English Patient"

Woody Harrelson "The People vs. Larry Flynt"

+ Geoffrey Rush "Shine"

Billy Bob Thornton "Sling Blade"

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Joan Allen "The Crucible"

+ Lauren Bacall "The Mirror Has Two Faces"

Juliette Binoche "The English Patient"

Barbara Hershey "The Portrait of a Lady"

Marianne Jean-Baptiste "Secrets & Lies"

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

+ Cuba Gooding Jr. "Jerry Maguire"

William H. Macy "Fargo"

Armin Mueller-Stahl "Shine"

Edward Norton "Primal Fear"

James Woods "Ghosts of Mississippi"

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

+ Fargo

Jerry Maguire

Lone Star

Secrets & Lies

Shine

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

The Crucible

+ The English Patient

Hamlet

Sling Blade

Trainspotting

BEST ART DIRECTION

The Birdcage

+ The English Patient

Evita

Hamlet

William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

+ The English Patient

Evita

Fargo

Fly Away Home

Michael Collins

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

+ Angels and Insects

Emma

The English Patient

Hamlet

The Portrait of a Lady

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

The Line King: The Al Hirschfeld Story

Mandela

Suzanne Farrell: Elusive Muse

Tell the Truth and Run

+ When We Were Kings

BEST SHORT SUBJECT DOCUMENTARY

+ Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien

Cosmic Voyage

An Essay on Matisse Special Effects

The Wild Bunch: An Album In Montage

BEST FILM EDITING

+ The English Patient

Evita

Fargo

Jerry Maguire

Shine

BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FILM

A Chef In Love

+ Kolya

The Other Side of Sunday

Prisoner of the Mountains

Ridicule

BEST MAKEUP

Ghosts of Mississippi

+ The Nutty Professor

Star Trek: First Contact

BEST ORIGINAL MUSICAL OR COMEDY SCORE

Emma

The First Wives Club

+ The Hunchback of Notre Dame

James and the Giant Peach

The Preacher's Wife

BEST ORIGINAL DRAMATIC SCORE

The English Patient

Hamlet

Michael Collins

+ Shine

Sleepers

BEST ORIGINAL SONG

+ Because You Loved Me from Up Close And Personal

For the First Time from One Fine Day

I Finally Found Someone from The Mirror Has Two Faces

That Thing You Do! from That Thing You Do!

You Must Love Me from Evita

BEST ANIMATED SHORT FILM

Canhead

Quest

+ Wat's Pig

La Salla

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT FILM

De Tripas Corazon

+ Dear Diary

Ernst & Lyset

Esposados

Wordless

BEST SOUND

The English Patient

Evita

+ Independence Day

The Rock

Twister

BEST SOUND EFFECTS EDITING

Daylight

Eraser

+ The Ghost and the Darkness

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

Dragonheart

Independence Day

+ Twister

Show us the money!

Best pictures, best domestic ticket sales ever:

1. Forrust Gump (1994) $329.7-million

2. Gone With The Wind (1939) $193.6-million

3. Dances With Wolves (1990) $184.2-million

4. Rain Man (1988) $172.8-million

5. The Sting (1973) $159.6-million

Best pictures, worst domestic ticket sales since 1980:

1. The Last Emperor (1987) $44.0-million

2. Amadeus (1984) $51.6-million

3. Ordinary People (1980) $52.3-million

4. Gandhi (1982) $52.8-million

5. Chariots of Fire (1981) $58.3-million

How this year's best-picture nominees compare:

1. Jerry Maguire $140.6-million

2. The English Patient $60-million

3. Shine $26.8-million

4. Fargo $24-million

5. Secrets & Lies $8.8-million

(Note: A best-picture Oscar adds an average of 17 percent to a film's pre-Oscar domestic earnings.)

Statistics from Entertainment Data, Inc. and http://www.interlog.com/odin/gross/

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