The reason studios and indies alike pursue Oscars — at considerable cost in time and money — is not only for prestige and bragging rights in Hollywood, but to get a box office boost from the drawn-out awards season. This year’s results follow a similar pattern from recent years, as most distributors played from an established playbook. Industry experts could look at where nominees stood in mid-January when the Oscar nominees were revealed and given each release plan, project home viewing dates and final results.
But raw numbers never tell the full tale. Some Oscar pictures are out of theatrical release by awards time. Back in 2008-9, Summit’s "The Hurt Locker" was a low-end best picture that could have tripled its $17 million total if it had opened in November. Other contenders open early enough so that they hit home viewing venues during the height of the campaign. This year both "Bridge of Spies" and "The Martian" benefited from ancillary play. And cable and international deals yield monetary bonuses payable with nominations and wins.
But the extra gross comes at a price: Marketing costs and other awards-related expenses can soar just as films being brought back for play get much better exhibitor terms than usual (often 30-36% for return engagements) rather than the more standard 45-50%. So each film has its own gauge for success.
Here’s how this year’s crop played the Oscar game:
"The Revenant" Scored Best
The frontier actioner grossed the most of the in-release contenders, because Fox gave it the widest initial general audience release among the nominees. Studio pictures "Mad Max: Fury Road" and "The Martian" opened much earlier in the summer and fall, respectively, and were already headed to home viewing. "The Revenant" had grossed $58 million through its first wide week (showing strength before the nomination with $1.5 million during its platform run). Then $113 million more was added between then and Oscar night ($170.7 million total).
That’s a great haul. But how much of that was awards-generated business? Likely only a small portion. The film now stands at $176 million, and will end up around $190 million. That’s a healthy 3.4 multiple of initial wide weekend. Very few studio films platform at Christmas and then go on to win top Oscars. The best comparison with a star-driven, upscale and general audience Leonardo DiCaprio film is"The Great Gatsby," which opened in May 2013 to $50 million and then amassed $145 million total. That was a 2.9 multiple. Apply the higher result for "The Revenant" and one can guess that its awards bump was about $28 million. And unlike some more domestic oriented specialized contenders, "The Revenant" has a built in international audience (already at $255 million with China and Japan still to open).
DiCaprio’s win was considered a given, so much of its impact came early, and was a contributor to that $20 million post-Oscars haul, excellent these days for a film mostly played out (but also unusual since its Christmas release meant no home video until the end of March). So it’s tough to argue, with the bonus of already being a mass market entry and the millions in extra awards marketing, that this made a huge Oscar win.
"Spotlight" vs. "Birdman"
This year’s best picture winner played almost the same as last year’s A.G. Inarritu entry, Birdman." Clearly, Open Road looked at Fox Searchlight’s plan last year, a smart call given their stellar awards track record. The "Spotlight" results are eerily similar.
1. Both debuted at key late summer festivals (both Venice and Telluride, then splitting New York and Toronto).
2. Both had pre-Thanksgiving platform openings ("Birdman" did more than 50% better)
3. Both expanded incrementally to some 900 screens over Thanksgiving.
4. Both retreated to under 500 more prime screens through Christmas.
5. Both hit, then doubled their theaters after the nominations.
6. Both were made available to Video on Demand the weekend before the Oscars.
7. Though their gross patterns followed slightly different routes, both grossed or will end up somewhere between $40-45 million.
These aren’t huge numbers for a Best Picture winners. In fact, the last three (throw in "12 Years a Slave") and four of the last five ("The Artist" added) grossed under $60 million domestically, below historical figures, particularly adjusted, when $100 million-plus, even for more specialized pedigree releases like "Slumdog Millionaire" and "The King’s Speech" was the frequent result.
Why "The Big Short" Outgrossed "Spotlight"
The third entry in the closest Best Picture race in years earned equivalent rave reviews and current issues content to winner "Spotlight," yet even with a release date six weeks later, managed to gross more than $25 million more. But the distance between their theatrical returns after expenses are added in might make the margin smaller.
"The Big Short" was handled by studio Paramount, which scored wide-release success with Oscar contenders "The Fighter" and "True Grit." The early December initial dates of "The Big Short" were surprisingly strong (actually closer to "Birdman" than "Spotlight"). But in part because of the lateness of its release and the proximity to Christmas, Paramount in its third week jumped to over 1,500 theaters, more than its two prime awards rivals ever reached, and then added 1,000 more after the nominations, much more than "Spotlight."
That is the prime reason— as Christmas week is especially golden for upscale films—for the bigger performance. But wide releases require much greater marketing buys (including far more network TV), and at Christmas often even more because of the increased number of films fighting for attention. So this cost Paramount more than Open Road had to spend on "Spotlight."
There is no question the nominations helped to boost awareness, along with bigger name stars than "Spotlight." Even though the first wide weekend started with Christmas Day, "The Big Short"’s final $70 million total will be a strong seven times multiple of the initial one. By comparison "Concussion," which also had awards hopes, did almost the same opening gross and ended up with a 3.4 multiple, less than half (partly explained by its initial 1,000 more screens). So it is possible to suggest $30 million of its gross was a direct result of its award attention.
Is that a larger total than what "Spotlight" added? Post-nominations and wins, on paper, sure. But much of the $29 million "Spotlight" had amassed by nomination day came because of earlier awards notice and the assumption that it was the leading contender earlier. "The Big Short" was a late top contender, with its top attention coming more from the Academy than earlier critics’ groups. But therein lies an interesting point. Did its late release date hurt its chances of winning the top award? In the last ten years, no December release has won best picture, with studios adjusting to the earlier awards ceremony schedule with more October and November than before. Thais has to be an "aha" moment for many Oscar strategists.
"Room" Had the Craftiest Oscar Play
Brie Larson’s Oscar win, even with her acclaim, was not a sure thing, after she did not win anything from the top tier critics groups. And one thing that seemed to hurt her chances was the film’s lackluster initial performance, particularly when compared to the later in the fall released "Spotlight" and "Brooklyn." "Room" actually had only grossed $5.3 million by the mid-January nominations.
But like so much else that A24 has achieved recently (including winning Oscars in the same year for three different films, an achievement only matched or passed among specialized companies by Miramax and Weinstein), their plans worked. They made sure it received maximum attention right when it mattered. With its bonus nominations including best picture and director, they were the freshest of the top nominees as they went over 200 screens for the first time in last January (896 to be exact). And they will end up adding more than $10 million to their total.
Last year’s best actress winner "Still Alice" similarly made its push during the voting period, although with only one-week qualifying runs in New York and L.A. until its exact-timed reopening. Sony Pictures Classics, usually among the slower rollout companies, in its early weeks had more theaters than normal as they added runs, but still had reached only under $6 million by Oscar night.
In both cases, leading contenders did what all distributors try to do with top nominees. They created a sense of a film’s presence and success, enough to warrant awards (few non-starters manage nominations, let alone wins). Larson’s performance, other key Globe and Screen Actors Guild wins also helped to create the sense that this was a worthy contender. But all this could have been lost, with higher initial grosses still below other contenders, followed by a weak return engagement. And that route brought higher ad expenses and still more later costs. Oscars are often loss leaders even when they work out. We don’t know A24’s expenses or returns, but it is safe to say they maximized grosses while still getting their top Oscar. A24 spent heavily to get their win, but likely saw a better return even with possibly a lower gross.
To VOD or Not VOD?
Those films that opened by late October (thus by Oscar night passed the industry 90-day window for theatrical play) have increasingly taken the opportunity to push their home viewing purchases right before the awards. Several this year had that chance and followed what winning films "Dallas Buyers Club," "Birdman" and "The Theory of Everything" did in the last few years. Though unfortunately we have no access to these figures to fully judge, three of the strongest contenders for top wins — "Spotlight," "Room" and "The Danish Girl"— took this route, eschewing the possible additional revenues possible for being seen only on screen.
"Spotlight" made the most sense, after nearly four months in theaters and as an uncertain best picture winner. It will end up with about $5 million more in theaters post-Oscars, quite impressive since normally circuits avoid films on VOD (although its awards, length of play and its distributor owned by the two top exhibitors made it an easier choice). "The Danish Girl" was only really in contention for Supporting Actress, and though Alicia Vikander was a leading contender, she wasn’t certain. But that film’s disappointing performance — only about $11 million total despite broad play — and the lack of certainty that even with a win much more revenue was out their made Focus’ decision an easy one. (They did the same thing with "Theory" last year, a much bigger success)
The proof that the VOD revenue is vital comes from "Room." Little doubt remained by Oscar night that Larson would win, and then if only in theaters would the film get a boost. But how much? Last year, "Still Alice" (well within the 90-day window) added $10 million to get its gross to over $18 million. But that came with higher ad buys and film rental likely around 35%, so likely not much more than a couple million profit for SPC for those weeks.
We don’t know how "Room" fared on VOD (and of course "Alice" played on those venues in due time). But with studios retaining a high amount of VOD revenues (reported around 2/3s) and very little advertising spent, they could have had a strong return to immediately capitalize on the win. Clearly they thought Oscar meant more money for them this way than in theaters.