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‘A Star Is Born’ Doesn’t Need to Break Box-Office Records to Be an Oscar Frontrunner

While a musical hasn't won Best Picture since "Chicago," the last two major studio wins came from the same studio releasing Bradley Cooper's box-office smash.

“A Star Is Born”

Warner Bros.

In less than three weeks of release, “A Star Is Born” will gross $134 million domestic, making it one of the best-grossing movie musicals in recent years (no matter how Warner Bros. wants to categorize it with the Golden Globes). Now, $200 million appears to be in reach. Of course, there’s plenty of variables in play: How much will it drop? Can it sustain prime theaters through Thanksgiving, or Christmas? Will it stick around long enough to benefit from award citations and nominations?

Questions, questions. Here’s some answers, starting with: “A Star Is Born” won’t be noted as a record-breaking success. But it’s a genuine Oscar frontrunner.

"A Star Is Born"
“A Star Is Born”

How much will “A Star Is Born” make?

Based on the performance of similar films released in October with an eye toward awards, the film’s trajectory suggests something between $190 million-$215 million domestic. That’s pretty great: For Warner Bros., which budgeted a mere $36 million (though with likely hefty profit participation for director/star Bradley Cooper and lead actress Lady Gaga), it should provide a big profit from theatrical results alone. They should be in the black even before home viewing — and that doesn’t include the best-selling soundtrack.

"A Star Is Born"

“A Star Is Born”

Warner Bros.

What does this mean for its Oscar chances?

Release-calendar bias is a thing. “A Star is Born” has what it needs to be a frontrunner — good reviews, strong audience response, smart marketing, an assist from its actor-director, and excitement over Lady Gaga as a credible actress. But the release date helps.

The October date helps “A Star Is Born.” Since the Oscars’ show date moved to February in 2011, only two December films have won: “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” and “Million Dollar Baby.” Among the massive studio hits that fell short of Best Picture with December release dates are “Avatar,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “The Fighter,” “True Grit,” “Les Miserables,” “American Hustle,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “American Sniper,” and “The Revenant.”

“Star” also has the advantages of the Oscar-friendly musical genre and a nascent actor-turned-director. The Academy has given Best Picture to actor-directed films nine times, with eight of those from 1980 onward. (Before Robert Redford’s “Ordinary People,” Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet” was the only precedent.) The actors’ branch is the Academy’s largest.

The last three major studio wide releases to win Best Picture were “Argo,” “The Departed,” and “Million Dollar Baby,” all from Warner Bros. In its third week, “A Star is Born” is outperforming all of them. However, other films with a similar pedigree failed to win Best Picture. Warners had one of them in “Gravity” ($180 million), with even stronger reviews (Metacritic: 96). And “The Martian” had taken in $158 million at this point (Metacritic: 80). But they were both science-fiction, which turns off some Academy voters.

How does it compare to other musicals?

The most successful musicals include at least one of two factors. One is original music; the other is a more-youthful appeal, often with a pop-music orientation.

In Oscar history, nine musicals have won Best Picture, including five between 1958-1969 (a period when the genre was at its most dominant). “Chicago,” the most recent musical to win, was a major hit (nearly $260 million in domestic gross, adjusted). It came nearly 20 years after the last musical to gross over $100 million (“Yentl”). And following a familiar Oscar trend, its win stemmed from revitalizing a once-strong genre (see also: “Titanic,” “Gladiator,” “Unforgiven,” and “Braveheart”).

Disappointments like “Phantom of the Opera” and “Sweeney Todd” (relatively expensive, not managing $100 million) made studios a little skittish, but the more contemporary, pop-oriented “Dreamgirls” with Beyonce in 2006 did quite well (although failed to get a Best Picture nomination). Post-“Chicago,” the next nominee was “Les Miserables,” which happened after the category expanded to include up to 10 films.

Where would $200 million gross rank “A Star Is Born” in box-office history? Well, more than $1 billion below “The Sound of Music” ($1.3 billion in adjusted domestic gross, and the third biggest film in history). “Mary Poppins” and “Grease” both made over $700 million adjusted — that’s “Black Panther”-level success. It’s also far below the widely disparaged Barbra Streisand 1976 version of “A Star Is Born,” which made $343 million adjusted.

Finally, here’s where “A Star Is Born” is prepared to smoke many of its historical competitors. “La La Land” made $156 million, 60 percent of which came in after the Oscars. For “Chicago,” it was an even higher percentage.  For “A Star Is Born,” it will approach $200 million before it has the benefit of actual nominations.

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