For all the hoopla surrounding the announcement that the Academy had expanded its best picture category to 10 features, four or five films have taken the lead in this year’s race.

At the head of the field is the creatively ground-breaking and commercially record-breaking Avatar, which came in at the end of the season and turned expectations for awards season on their head. Then there’s Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraq-war thriller The Hurt Locker, which is Avatar’s main competition for best picture. The contest is rounded out by a trio of other key contenders — Inglourious Basterds, Up In The Air and Precious: Based On The Novel Push By Sapphire.

A common refrain on this year’s circuit is that it wasn’t a great year for movies, that a field of 10 best picture nominations would be hard to assemble.That is an exaggeration. Some of the year’s best films were not the prestige pictures tailor-made for awards consideration, but the summer blockbusters such as Up, Star Trek, District 9 and The Hangover, which won over critics as well as mainstream audiences.

The Academy has recognised Up and District 9 in the best picture category, as well as Avatar and The Blind Side – major wide releases which were designed as audience films first and were never intended to benefit from Oscar talk.

Unfortunately, some of the season’s big guns — the films that would have benefited from awards buzz — fell at the first hurdle. Nine and The Lovely Bones stumbled as soon as they were seen by critics, and even well-reviewed titles such as Bright Star, Crazy Heart and Invictus weren’t deemed best picture material.

The shift to voting for the crowd-pleasers might be a conscious decision on the part of many Academy members, in order to boost the Oscar show itself. The ceremony has been suffering from falling ratings and a general lack of public interest in the films on show, such as last year’s best picture nominees Frost/Nixon, The Readeror Milk.

As the industry continues to go through a sea change that is challenging its entrenched business models, the old-school Oscar voters might just be digging in their heels and celebrating what Hollywood does best, which is to entertain the masses. Certainly a best picture win for Avatar, highly likely at this point, would bring Oscar voters more into line with audiences than they have been for a year or six.