By Lisa Richwine
LOS ANGELES, Feb 21 (Reuters) - The movie studios behind this year's Best Picture nominees already have brought home a treasured prize: big box-office sales that placed the Oscar contenders among the most-watched films of 2012.
The nine competitors for Hollywood's top film award sold a combined $2 billion in tickets worldwide heading into Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony. Six of them, including frontrunners "Argo" and "Lincoln," hauled in at least $100 million apiece at U.S. and Canadian theaters.
"You've got pictures that are resonating with the public," said Keith Simanton, managing editor of movie website IMDb.com. "These are the happy confluence of commerce and art."
A year ago only one nominee, civil rights drama "The Help," reached the $100-million domestic sales mark, according to the Box Office Mojo website. The winning "The Artist," a mostly silent, black-and-white film, earned just $45 million in the North American (U.S. and Canadian) market during its entire theatrical run.
Global sales for last year's nine nominees topped out at $1.2 billion even after the Oscars and related publicity.
The inclusion of more commercially successful movies is partly by design. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the group that awards the Oscars, took criticism for seeming to favor adult-oriented, art house films that few people had seen, creating a disconnect with teen and young adult movie fans who flock to action-packed blockbusters.
Complaints escalated after the snub of 2008 release "The Dark Knight," a critically acclaimed Batman thriller with $1 billion in worldwide sales.
In 2009, the academy decided to allow 10 instead of five Best Picture nominees, a change that opened the field to more films with bigger audiences.
Domestic sales for this year's nominees averaged $103 million, according to IMDb, compared with $70 million for last year's lesser-seen movies.
The popularity of this year's crop reflects studios' ability to make better films with smaller budgets, said Universal Pictures Chairman Adam Fogelson.
In prior years, he said, a film with the Oscar-worthy scope and A-list stars of Universal's nominee "Les Miserables" would have cost so much that executives wouldn't have greenlit it. Universal kept the musical's cost to $60 million through judicious cost-control and the contracts with stars.
"Some of the nominated films were only made because they could be made for a price," he said.
Hollywood hopes the bigger box office sales translate to more viewers of the Oscars telecast on Walt Disney Co's ABC network. Last year's U.S. audience totaled 39 million, down from 55 million in 1998 when mega-hit "Titanic" swept the awards, according to Nielsen data provided by Horizon Media.
"We have gotten calls from past Oscar producers saying they are jealous, because we just lucked out and had this fantastic year in film," said Neil Meron, one of the producers of this year's show. "We are very grateful to the movie gods."
"Lincoln," Steven Spielberg's story of the 16th U.S. president's fight to end slavery, leads this year's nominees with $177 million domestically. The movie, distributed by Disney, won praise for humanizing the revered president, and ranks 14th among 2012 North American releases. Six fellow nominees fall in the top 35.
Globally, shipwreck drama "Life of Pi" towers above the lot with $577 million in ticket sales, overcoming skepticism of how the book adaptation about a boy stranded on a lifeboat with a tiger could work on the big screen.
Ben Affleck's "Argo," a Warner Bros. release based on the real-life rescue of U.S. diplomats from Iran, earned glowing reviews and saw domestic grosses climb to $127 million as it collected other awards.
The remaining $100-million-plus films locked in the Best Picture battle are "Les Miserables" and two films distributed by The Weinstein Company -- Quentin Tarantino's slave revenge tale "Django Unchained" and romantic drama "Silver Linings Playbook."
Sony Corp's "Zero Dark Thirty," the controversial account of the CIA's pursuit of Osama bin Laden, is close with $89 million.
Social media buzz helped "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Silver Linings" record the biggest sales bumps after the Jan. 10 Oscar nominations, said Phil Contrino, editor of Boxoffice.com, which tracks film mentions on Facebook and Twitter.
The two smaller nominees are French language drama "Amour," with just $4 million from a limited domestic run, and mythological "Beasts of the Southern Wild" with $12 million. Sony released "Amour" and Fox distributed "Beasts."
The Best Picture field showcases the diversity of films that propelled 2012 domestic ticket sales to a record $10.8 billion, said Chris Aronson, president of domestic distribution at 20th Century Fox, the News Corp-owned studio behind "Life of Pi."
"'Les Mis' and 'Django' probably couldn't be more on the opposite end of the spectrum," Aronson said. "It's a very balanced marketplace where there was something for everyone, and that's what makes a very healthy business."