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by Peter Knegt
February 19, 2009 5:02 AM
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Oscar and the Box Office: What's Really Going On?

The nominees for best picture at the 81st annual Academy Awards.

This past weekend, Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire" became the highest grossing film ever at New York's Angelika Film Center. Its gross at the Angelika alone, which stands at $1,157,497, surpassed the record of $1,135,141 held by Roberto Benigni's "Life is Beautiful." More over, "Slumdog"'s average box office per week at the Angelika is $96,122, three times "Beautiful"'s $39,143. There is no question "Slumdog"'s nearly unprecedented sweep of almost every single Oscar precursor awarded, as well as its frontrunner status at the Oscars themselves, has helped. The $15 million budgeted film's total gross now stands at $86,696,000, with at least a few weekends of potent numbers to come. But somehow, "Slumdog" is not the box office story of this year's Oscar season.

For a few weeks now, bloggers and reports (including indieWIRE's own box office columns) have been wondering, "what happened to the Oscar bump?" "Slumdog" aside, very few Oscar nominated films have seemed to find much of a boost from the season.

As it stands, "Milk has grossed $26,528,000, "The Reader" has grossed $18,996,000, and "Frost/Nixon" has grossed $16,430,000, making them the second, third and fourth lowest grossing best picture nominees of the past decade (Clint Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima" is the lowest grossing, with $13.75 million). Sure, there's still some time for them to catch up. But judging from their performances in recent box office frames ("Nixon" in particular, averaging just $1,904 this past weekend), reaching the heights of, say, "Good Night and Good Luck"'s $31.5 million haul is pretty much all they can hope for.

Even when "Slumdog" finds a gross somewhat similar to "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (which has grossed $122,276,000, thanks to a wide Christmas release and the presence of Brad Pitt, and not to its 13 Oscar nominations, since which it has found just a small percentage of extra grosses), the total gross of all five 2008 best picture nominees will be around $300 million. That's about 57% of what "The Dark Knight" grossed, and the third worst combined gross of best picture nominees in the past decade, beating only 2005's ill-fated "Crash"-led lineup and 2006's "The Departed" and company.

Yet the overall box office is actually booming right now. "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" will likely end up grossing more than any of the 2008 best picture nominees, while the first six weeks of 2008 has offered a whopping five potential $100 million grossers opening in wide release ("Blart," "Gran Torino" and "Taken" for sure, "He's Just Not That Into You" and "Friday The 13th" possibly). January and, so far, February have offered numerous cumulative weekend grosses that broke records for those respective weekends.

So is the real problem here that films about a mall security guard, several whining, overprivileged women, and Liam Neeson trying to save his daughter are stealing Oscar's potential patrons away? Maybe a little bit. But it's also likely due to the fact that the three underperforming best picture nominees are simply not very marketable entities. A political drama with two little known stars? A holocaust film that has the worst reviews of any best picture nominee in Metacritic's history? A biopic of a gay politician? These films are simply not ripe for box office receipts, and should perhaps be happy they are all going to find grosses over $20 million. With budgets all in the $20-35 million range (though that doesn't include Oscar marketing costs), they should all more than break even once DVD, VOD and TV sales all shine through.

It's all about expectations. It's hard to argue that the two favored films vying for best foreign language film are underperforming. "The Class" has taken in $860,000 in its three weeks of limited release, while "Waltz With Bashir" has grossed $1,402,000 after eight. Neither have gone over 50 screens, and both should end up among the ten highest grossing foreign-language film nominees of the past decade.

If one considers it this way: "Frost Nixon" has outgrossed both Oliver Stone's "Nixon" and Andrew Fleming's "Dick" to become the highest grossing Nixon film ever made; "The Reader"'s final gross won't be too far off of "The Pianist"'s $32,572,577; And, "Milk," though certainly not achieving "Brokeback Mountain" or "Philadelphia" box office heights, is still among one of the highest grossing gay-themed dramas, and certainly the highest to take on gay themes in such a political context.

And as far as Oscar goes, even though the best picture nominees are underperforming overall, it seems to have still helped them. Take a look at this chart, care of the endlessly informative boxofficemojo.com:

Over thirty-one percent of 2008's best picture nominees' grosses have come post-Oscar nomination. With five days still to go, that's the second highest bump since 1988 (beaten only by 2004's crop, led my "Million Dollar Baby" and "The Aviator"). In fact, "Slumdog," "The Reader" and even "Frost/Nixon" have experienced bumps among the 25 highest of the past 26 years (1983's "The Dresser" still has the biggest bump, getting 89.4% of its grosses post-Oscar nods).

One could certainly argue this is due to the late release dates of most of the nominees (two in November, three in December), but this has historically been the case for decades. While there have certainly been many exceptions, only a handful of nominees from the past decade have been released pre-October. In 2002, all of the best picture nominees were released in the last two weeks of December, and only 17.8% of their grosses came after Oscar nominations.

What all these numbers are getting at is perhaps there is no real concern that the infamous "Oscar bump" has disappeared. It's just Oscar made some marketably challenged choices this year. If "The Dark Knight," "WALL-E" and "Gran Torino" had been nominated instead of "Milk," "The Reader" and "Frost/Nixon," we'd all be talking about how this year's best picture lineup cracked a billion dollars instead.


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