Americans Tuning Out Oscar

For Hollywood, the rush of awards ceremonies are the true high holy days.

Awards season — known as February and March to the rest of America — means loads of opportunities for glitz and self-congratulation at the Golden Globes, People's Choice, Directors and Screen Actors Guild awards and, the granddaddy of them all, the Oscars (search).

But while Tinseltowners may feel they are the center of the universe, many Americans would beg to differ.

Since the astounding success of "Titanic" at the Academy Awards, viewership has sunk. While 55 million Americans tuned in to the 1998 show, by 2003, only 33 million were tubeside. And with no blockbuster nominees this year, the numbers are expected to plummet further, as they did for last month's Golden Globes (search).

James Hirsen, of the conservative news site, thinks he knows why.

"The problem is that in Hollywood people seek respect from the movie critic community, and from the various guilds, and from the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes. And they don't necessarily follow the tastes of middle America," Hirsen said.

This story is part of a special FOX News documentary, "Hollywood vs. America." Tune in Sunday at 9 p.m. EST to watch the special and come back to on Sunday and Monday for more.

Actor and political commentator Ben Stein (search) recalls sitting in an airplane as his fellow passengers discussed this year's contenders.

"Hardly any of us had seen any movies recently. And somebody said, 'When I go to movies, they rub me the wrong way so badly, it's as if I was having a root canal.' They just don't get what Americans are thinking about, they just don't get it," Stein said.

One possible explanation is that Americans understood and loved blockbusters like "Titanic" and the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Without such hits as nominees, audiences lose interest in the worldwide telecast and — more significantly — the movies themselves.

"One perfect example that we see right now is the way the critics are touting films like 'Vera Drake,'" Hirsen said. The film, by acclaimed British director Mike Leigh, is about a cleaning lady who performs in-house abortions in 1950s England.

"I mean, what's that about?" Stein asked. "To an enormous number of Americans, abortion is murder ... what does Hollywood think they're doing?"

Another controversial nominee is Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby," which touches on the topic of mercy killing and is, in Hirsen's estimation, "out of touch with mainstream America."

Still, movie producer Douglas Urbanski remains mostly upbeat about the big show.

"The Oscars are the greatest industry convention ... it's the auto show, it's all of that done on a bigger, grander, more glamorous scale in front of the whole world," Urbanski said. But, he said, "the Oscars also have a lot of low moments."

For fans of "The Passion of the Christ," one of those moments was the Mel Gibson film's failure to get nominated for anything but a few technical awards. Urbanski said that's because many academy voters never saw the megahit.

"Nobody knows who the voters are ... only the Academy knows. The members who vote for the Oscars have no accountability that they've actually seen any movie that was in the Oscars," Urbanski said.

Film critic and talk show host Michael Medved believes that is the root of the problem.

"I have had the experience of members of the academy calling me and saying, 'I don't know what to vote for. What should I vote for?'" Medved said. "You're not really supposed to help them with that. You're supposed to encourage them to see the movies."

Lorenzo Soria, president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (search), contends that "The Passion" was not snubbed at the Golden Globes. Rather, HFPA members simply thought other films were more deserving.

"Mel Gibson's movie, 'The Passion,' is not in English. So we had to put it in the foreign language category. That was a very strong category this year. And our members, somehow, decided there were other movies to be nominated," Soria said.

Of the top five money-making films of 2004, only "The Incredibles" is nominated for a major Oscars category, best animated film. While a movie like "Spider-Man 2" isn't the kind of "art" Hollywood honors at the Oscars, box-office figures show that the action flick's viewership towers over all of this year's best picture nominees combined.

Indeed, the numbers for this year's most honored films have largely done middling business at the box office.

"The Sea Inside," based on a real-life story about a paralyzed man's struggle for the right to die, is nominated for best foreign film. To date, it's made less than $500,000.

"Vera Drake" has pulled in less than $3 million so far. "Finding Neverland" has made less than $38 million, and while "Ray" peaked early in November, it's stalled at around $73 million.

Only "Aviator" is soaring, but the biopic about Howard Hughes has yet to make back its reported $150 million production budget. Oscar gold may give it a boost, but that's still not making Stein happy. To win his money, some things have to change.

"Hollywood was taken over by a bunch of dope-smoking hippies. They are no longer smoking dope, but [they are] still hippies, still very counter-cultural, and they don't get what America is all about," the "Ferris Bueller" star said.

FOX News' John Gibson, Bill McCuddy, Joel Parks and Jason Kopp contributed to this report.

This story is part of a special FOX News documentary, "Hollywood vs. America." Tune in Sunday at 9 p.m. EST to watch the special and come back to on Sunday and Monday for more.