Six of the nine Oscar Best Picture nominees have already passed the $100 million mark, the highest level since the number was increased from five in 2009. These are the biggest numbers, even with ticket price adjustments, in recent box-office history. A number of factors contributed to the result– the quality of the films, with studio-financed budgets requiring films with wide audience appeal, apart from any Oscar bonus–but the most significant was the calendar. (See grosses chart below comparing 2012 and 2011.)
The nine nominees (spawning many acting contenders) make a diverse group of films. None were among the top ten grossers released in 2012 and none reached the $200 million mark, which 11 other commercial pictures did. This is a long-term trend –in just three over the previous 10 years were Best Picture nominees among the top grossing films ("Avatar," "Toy Story 3" and "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King"). And this year, acclaimed mass-audience smashes such as "Skyfall," "The Dark Knight Rises" and "The Avengers" earned just a handful of craft nominations.
Still, the total grosses for the nine nominees have a combined domestic gross of over $920 million, of which more than $250 million has come since they became Oscar finalists. This compares to a total of about $600 million last year, of which only $72 million came between the nominations and the awards.
So what made this year so much better? Here are six reasons:
1. The studios were more aggressive about producing would-be contenders
Historically, the bulk of the top contenders are late-year releases. But studios have priorities, and releasing films at peak periods (like Christmas) with mass appeal that can play at 2,000+ theaters is at the top of the list. Marketing "prestige" films with mass appeal is a tough two-fer to pull off.
This year, starting in November, the majors released a group of films that, coincidentally or not, all were made by directors who had previously made films that won Best Picture and/or won Best Director themselves — Steven Spielberg, Sam Mendes, Ang Lee, Robert Zemeckis, Kathryn Bigelow, Peter Jackson, Tom Hooper — an almost unheard of confluence of talent with past box office appeal. All but one of their films was released initially in over 2,000 theaters, rather than platformed liked the majority of top Oscar contenders most years –which is the usual sign of high awrads expectations.
And all of them found commercial success as well as at least favorable consensus reviews. Of the ones from studios that made it into Best Picture, only one ("Zero Dark Thirty") did most of its business after the nominations, suggesting their appeal existed on their own, without the awards being their major marketing hook.
The studio hook is a critical factor this year. A low-budget indie nominee can be a success at $25 million, while a studio film usually doesn't get made without the expectation of a chance at grossing far more. So the total gross this year comes simply because of where many of the nominees were generated.
The increased grosses come from films that on the whole had higher production budgets. Four of this year's nine cost more than $60 million to make, compared to only two last year. And one of those two, "Hugo" (as disappointment in relation to cost) accounted for nearly half of the total production or acquisition cost of all of last year's nominees. Higher grosses are to be assumed (or at least hoped for) for films that cost more to make in the first place, and these costs of course cut down on the increased profit that they make, even with their Oscar boost.
2. More films came out later this year than usual
Seven of the nine nominees were released in November and December, and with their initial success, all were still legitimately playing in theaters both during the prime Thanksgiving (for the earlier films) and later Christmas playtimes, helping elevate their grosses. And three of them were wide-release films that initially entered the market in two cases ("Les Miserables" and "Django Unchained") with their third weekends coinciding with the nominations, and one ("Zero Dark Thirty") which timed its initial wide break at that time as well.
This meant that more of the gross naturally came during Oscar season, as well as a good portion after the nominations. And, of course, the awards publicity does help get audiences in to see the films. But even in the case of "Silver Linings Playbook" — a November release that gradually added theaters, hitting its maximum late in the game [- it is likely that an early wide playoff would have resulted in a reasonably similar gross. The difference with the later expansion is that this film managed to hit its stride with the public during the peak of the campaigning, which Weinstein had hoped would add to its chances for top awards.
3. The earlier nomination announcements enhanced grosses
By two weeks, this was the earliest ever date for nominees to be named. The rest of the calendar — the cutoff date for being released to be eligible, getting films in theaters by Christmas — didn't change. But the date on which the impact of nominations occurred came much earlier, enhancing their impact and likely to some extent helping all the films involved. With the films newer — with the result that they are in more theaters still, have less competition from newer non-award related releases — all helped add to these films' grosses.
4. Less competition from other films
Though the two biggest releases late in the year — "Breaking Dawn 2" and "Skyfall" — were not among the Best Picture nominees, many of the nominees were among the top films out for the holiday season. With many moviegoers packing in more movies at holiday time than usual, the contenders were among the must-see films and with fewer choices than usual among other fare enhanced the Oscar films' take of the box office.
5. Longer period between nominations and the awards
With the earlier nomination announcement date, this year had an extra week of play, which will likely by itself add another $15-20 million to the grosses for the top nominees.
6. Concentration of acting nominees among Best Picture contenders
14 of the 20 acting nominees, including all the likely winners, come from films that were also up for Best Picture, and all are in first-run release. Last year, most winners and top contenders (including Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Christopher Plummer) were either in films not nominated for Best Picture or had already come out on DVD. For moviegoers wanting to catch up with the those expected to win, this year those films are all in Best Picture nominees that are still in theaters.
So how good a year has it been for the individual films?
Overall, excellent. For the Best Picture nominees, all should (esecially those with even stronger overseas totals) make a profit, sometimes major, for their distributors. Their inclusion in the field also enhances their down-the-road revenues in DVD, cable and other venues.
All of the nominees though, except for two, were guaranteed profit even had they not been nominated. Only the two late wide releases — "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Silver Linings Playbook" — took in their needed theatrical revenues after the nominations. But the former, with a marketing campaign emphasizing its military themes, likely would have done close to as well had it been released at another time of the year (and possibly not had as much controversy, which was likely tied into its Oscar chances which elevated its visibility as well as threat to other nominees). "Silver Linings," had it gone wider initially, would almost certainly have grossed a bit less. But since all the extended weeks cost Weinstein much more in regular advertising than a normal more expedited release would have, and with exhibitors, if following the normal pattern, paying less in film rental for later weeks of their engagements in (when the grosses were as good or better than in earlier weeks), the value of their successful release plan has been more aimed at winning awards than maximizing short-term profits.
"Lincoln" was the big story among the nominees in terms of total gross, but also in anticipation that its much-larger than expected take was supposed to be its ace in the hole for winning. If as now expected it doesn't, it won't reach $200 million, but it already has done nearly as much as it would with the win.
The two lagging films in grosses — "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and "Amour" — both are hits on the much-lower scale of specialized film. "Beasts" played off well over the summer with modest advertising investment from Fox Searchlight and no wide release, and clearly has reaped much bigger DVD sales and will have a higher cable value than its initial gross would normally suggest. "Amour," even without any wins other than Foreign Language Film, should reach at least the level of last year's winner "The Separation" ($7 million), and a possible Best Actress triumph would push it considerably higher. At its cost of acquisition and again lower marketing cost (although it has had a not insubstantial awards campaign) it should be at least a modest profit maker.
Among the acting nominees not up for Best Picture, Lionsgate's "The Impossible" has been the big gainer, grossing just under $18 million so far, three quarters since Naomi Watts was nominated for Best Actress. The big loser, alas, is "The Master." After its huge platform opening, Weinstein quickly rushed it into an 864 theater break last September, grossing only $16 million. They promised it would have a much wider release after the nominations. Despite getting three acting nods (but not the hoped for Best Picture), it added only $300,000 more before it comes out on DVD next week.
The chart below lists, for both 2012 and 2011, the films nominated for Best Picture and then those nominated for acting only. The grosses are in millions, and totals do not include those after the awards. For 2012, they include grosses through Feb. 18, 2013. For 2011, they include through the Thursday before the awards.