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Why the Oscar Box Office Slump? It’s Not What You Think

Why the Oscar Box Office Slump? It's Not What You Think

As the 45-day period between the Oscar nominations and the Academy Awards on March 2 heads into the final stretch (the ballot deadline was Tuesday), how much of an Oscar boost did the contenders get? 

Well, this year’s entries took in far less during this period than last year. On the surface, this portends a fundamental shift. The NYT’s Brooks Barnes suggests that apathy has set in with the public over the awards. But dig deeper and the reasons for the Oscar box office slump become clear. It’s the release dates. 

Add up the estimated take for the nine Best Picture contenders (from nominations through next weekend) and there’s a huge drop from the same period last year: an estimated $103 million additional gross compared to $324 million last go-round. That means less than a third as much revenue this year. 

What happened?

2014 marks a similar pattern to 2012, when the biggest additional revenue came from “The Descendants, which added $32 million during the period, followed by both “The Artist” and “The Iron Lady” at $25 million more each, all with national breaks and considerable marketing expense. That’s more like the range of this year.

For another, the shift of the calendar to one week later this time meant that all the films had already played one week longer, with more gross already banked (with the added value of being a likely Oscar nominees already attached).

But some distinctive differences in release date strategy also came into play, which had little to do with maximizing domestic revenue playing off the nominations, and more to do with both foreign release strategies and domestic home video plans.

The studios have long recognized that going with a top contender with a wide commercial at Christmas can pay off. “Django Unchained” and “Les Miserables” — both Christmas Day openers — did massive business that was enhanced by their nomination hauls (reflected in last year’s bigger totals). Knowing this, smaller films realize that it’s tougher to open against them, and move their dates earlier.

Among this year’s top nominees, “12 Years a Slave” opened in October, “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Nebraska” and “Philomena” debuted in pre-Thanksgiving November. Given normal release patterns, that meant they widened (in varying degrees) significantly before the nominations. With today’s high awareness of awards and advertising clearly pushing consideration, much of the public already attaches “Oscar contender” to films like these irrespective of not yet being official, which adds to their grosses earlier rather than after nominations.

Another reason for going earlier is to make sure early awards voters– such as SAG, the Golden Globes and other significant critics’ groups — are aware of the acclaim and interest for potential nominees (Leonardo DiCaprio’s weak initial showing is thought to have come from late “The Wolf of Wall Street” screenings). Being in theaters and showing good positive response is part of most game plans these days.

Last year’s nominees included two films that took a different route for strategic reasons – both “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Silver Linings Playbook” held off going to their widest breaks (in the case of the former, going wide at all) until after the nominations. Those two films combined grossed $156 million post-noms/pre-awards (“ZD30″‘s $86 million was nearly all of its haul). “SLP” was a big success, but its $132 million total, more than half during this period, is less than what David O. Russell’s film this year, “American Hustle” has grossed already. And “AH” has done this in a shorter period, meaning that its marketing costs overhaul likely came in lower than his earlier film. That only about $37 million came in during the 45 days means head to head comparisons might make this year look weaker, but that’s a statistical blip, not a trend. “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the other big Christmas release, took in most of its money ($83 million) pre-noms (it will be at about $114 million by the awards). Paramount opted to get their money in over the holidays and just after, not wait for possible nominations. And they did the right thing. The lack of any leading nominee to push for maximum results after the nominations accounts for much of this year’s decreased total.

Another factor is that the year’s biggest grossing contender, “Gravity,” opened in early October, already having taken in $256 million and close to being maxed out by January. Still, they will have added about $12 million more than they would have because of new dates.

As for the rest of the main contenders, it’s a mixed bag. In part, each was hurt by the sheer number of nominees in the mix, but individual performances were fairly typical. And again, most had earlier openings and already had taken in much of their potential gross. “12 Years a Slave” had become the biggest initial limited-release film of the year at $39 million pre-nominations. It looks to take in just under $10 million that, without the awards timetable, wouldn’t have been possible. This didn’t, as Fox Searchlight might have hoped, break down all of the resistance that the film has faced or on its own give the kind of boost recent winners like “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The King’s Speech” got when they became crossover hits. Yet it will still outgross “The Artist” (which even with its multiple wins only grossed $44 million, a majority during the voting).

“Dallas Buyers Club,” “Nebraska” and “Philomena” combined will have added $24 million to their takes, with each having had significant exposure earlier. (In the case of “Nebraska,” with its limited appeal as a black and white film about an old character, though its final gross of $17-18 million will fall short of director Alexander Payne’s recent successes, the Oscar connection will elevate it above two similarly tricky films from other awards-contending filmmakers (such as the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” and Jason Reitman’s “Labor Day”) who would usually compete and gross more. “Philomena” with the extra post-nomination push will likely outgross “Blue Jasmine” (out on DVD for weeks already).

Apart from “Captain Phillips” (already over $100 million, and whose home viewing release date was timed for just after nominations, making much more gross impossible), the other Best Picture nominee, “Her,” never really took off after a modest limited opening. Its initial expansion before the nominations had brought it to $11 million, a little more than doubling after its citations, most of which wouldn’t have happened except for them.

One non-Best Picture nominee is also worth noting — “August: Osage County” was the sole main contender to try to ride the nomination waves to success, and its results show how much the Oscars can still help. After weak initial grosses (hurt by mixed reviews), the Weinstein Company skillfully went wide (but not maximally) the week before the nominations, taking in $10.6 million. They then added theaters over subsequent weeks, with the final result around $37 million. It is doubtful much of the additional money would have come in without the Oscar boost. And had it performed better as Weinstein hoped with Best Picture and other nominees, it likely would have grossed even more.

So these shortfall factors do not suggest a total system breakdown this year. But in the meantime, two other and potentially bigger markets seem to be doing just fine.

Studios often delay release of their awards contenders internationally until after the nominations. The two biggest new releases (“Gravity” already had massive playoff), “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “American Hustle” timed most of their international dates (either initial release or wider playoff) to the nominations, both to significant success. With both films focusing on specific American stories rather than the broader-appeal films that normally succeed overseas, their combined $300 million take likely included major added Oscar-parallel value.

But the big success story has been “12 Years a Slave,” most of whose $61 million take so far — more than domestic — has come with post-nomination openings. Both the U.K. and France have had results (adjusted for their smaller populations) much bigger than in the U.S., which will guarantee, whatever Searchlight spent promoting the film and how it fares Oscar night, that the film will end up as a significant financial success.

“12 Years” also is counting on the awards to boost its DVD/BluRay sales and downloads. It is set for release on March 4, two days after the Oscars. “Gravity” is being released unusually late (almost 5 months after its release) next Tuesday, as is “Nebraska.” The rest aren’t likely far behind, and will benefit from all the hoopla.

And context for all this is important — the first two months this year have shown an uptick in gross (by a healthy margin) from last year, with, besides “Lone Survivor,” several other new non-awards releases providing much greater competition than last year’s weak new early year slate (and one older film — “Frozen,” an Oscar nominee itself, has added about $60 million in the period, though likely little related to its mentions). This might be as big a factor as any other. In today’s market, newer product has the edge over that which has been around for a while, Oscars or no Oscars, particularly when most of the nominees have been available to most viewers for some time. And that in turn reduces the pressure for contenders to prove their worth, even more so when many have already done well, and have foreign and home revenues to take advantage of, all enhanced by the awards attention.

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