Let's be honest, the Oscars are about money. Well, not entirely about money — there's also the potential for executives and directors to win bragging rights over their colleagues and there's a degree of back-patting celebration of the industry in there as well. But if the studios didn't think they could wring a few extra dimes from their product by giving out awards, there's no way that the Oscars would have the massive place in film culture that they maintain.
The reason, of course, that quote-unquote quality films are confined to the last few months of the year is partly because Oscar voters have historically proven to have short memories, but is also in the hope that the awards attention will give films legs well into March and beyond; if a movie gets nominated, and then wins, in theory, audiences will want to see the film that's been all over the news, and financial success will be assured. That's the theory, anyway.
But more and more these days, Oscar success and box office success seem to be disconnected. Received wisdom has it that the Academy likes to reward box office success, but the top grossing picture of the year has only been nominated six times in the last twenty, and in only five years did the top grossing movie among the nominated pictures win the prize, four of which — "Forrest Gump," "Titanic," "Gladiator" and "Return of the King" — were bona fide phenomenons ("The Departed" was the other). Indeed, two years ago, "The Hurt Locker" famously became the lowest-grossing Best Picture winner of all time, and it did so by beating the biggest-grossing movie of all time, "Avatar," which took one hundred times more at the box office worldwide.
And this year, things look no different. Of the nine nominated films, only "The Help" has taken more than $80 million at the box office (it's made slightly over twice that). In fact, presumptive winner "The Artist" is at present the second-lowest grossing nominee, with $24 million and counting, placing it only slightly ahead of "The Hurt Locker" in the modern era of nominations. A film failing at the box office can still be a hurdle to a nomination, but not necessarily — look at the badly reviewed, low-grossing "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" or its spiritual predecessor "The Reader," both of which still managed Best Picture nominations thanks to canny campaigning. Clearly quality, or more accurately the illusion of quality, is the key factor.
But perhaps more importantly, does the idea of a post-nomination-and-win box office boost still hold? Increasingly rarely, it would seem. "Slumdog Millionaire" was the best example in recent memory: up until Oscar nominations rolled around, it had made $56 million at the domestic box office. By the time the ceremony rolled around, it was at $98 million, and by the time it closed its run, it had added another $43 million, taking it to a grand total of $141 million. "The King's Speech" hit a nearly identical curve last year: $57 million on nomination day, $114 million on Oscar day, and $134 by the time it left theaters.
This year, however, there look to be fewer success stories. The film that arguably has benefited most from the nominations was, in fact, "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," which has taken 65% of its $29m total since it got a Best Picture nomination. That being said, it only went wide the weekend before the announcement, so it might well have ended up on the same total regardless — making three times the opening weekend take sounds about right for a Tom Hanks/Sandra Bullock movie. Meanwhile, the box office for "The Artist" had a similar boost, taking half of its $24 million total in the post-nomination period, but even then, it doesn't seem to be a "Slumdog Millionaire"-style phenomenon; it has dropped in the last two weekends, which suggests most of those who want to see it have already done so. A Best Picture win will undoubtedly give it a few more weeks of legs, but it'll likely still number among the lowest-grossing end of past victors, and even nominees.
And as for the rest? "The Descendants" has made 28% of its total gross since the nominations: not a bad number, but more in line with "Up In The Air," which it's still flagging behind the pace of despite opening earlier in the calendar. And with George Clooney looking likely to lose again in the Best Actor category, things may not tick up again. "Hugo" got a last gasp from its eleven nominations with an extra $9 million, but that's only equivalent to 14% of the total, while "War Horse" has only made 7% of its gross in the last three weeks, about in line with a non-Oscar nominated picture. And the other films: "Moneyball," "The Help," "Midnight in Paris" and "The Tree of Life" were all on DVD by the time they were nominated, and have taken negligible amounts of money in theaters since.
That's not to say that there isn't a benefit in being nominated for or winning an Oscar. But, generously, it seems to be one movie a year, the winner, that gets the real box office boost, and that's only when it follows "The King's Speech"/'Slumdog' rollout. And you have to have the right release date — when early year pictures like "Crash" or "The Hurt Locker" have won, their post-Oscars theatrical re-releases have taken pretty negligible sums — $750k and $1.6 million, respectively. When you consider that an Oscar campaign costs roughly $5-10 million (which is admittedly half what it was in the 1990s heyday), you start to wonder whether it's worth it.
To answer our own question: it totally is worth it, and that's because of the ancillary markets. After "Crash" won Best Picture, DVD sales tripled, while "The Hurt Locker" topped rental, retail and VOD charts after it won. Even if a film isn't yet on DVD, slapping "Winner Of 8 Oscars," or whatever, on the cover is bound to keep sales up, and in the download era, iTunes will likely push a film to their front page. And that value isn't just short-term; the value of a catalog title is improved massively if it can be labelled as an Oscar nominee or winner. Those who can't be tempted into theaters at present to see that French black and white silent movie might be more tempted when flicking through Netflix eighteen months from now.
Is there a way to give theatrical grosses the uptick too? Perhaps. If the Academy manage their long-touted plan to move the ceremony weeks earlier, which could happen as soon as next year, we'll be interested to see the boost that the nominated films, which will have been in theaters for significantly less time, get. But for now, executives need to be content with bragging rights at Nobu rather than vaultloads of cash.
Business talk over. This time next week we'll have our predictions on who will take home statues, and we've got lots more Oscar coverage planned over the next ten days or so.