Wise Oscarologists make careful study of awards consultants, those highly skilled campaign managers who orchestrate a film’s awards-season life from the fall festival circuit to the final envelope. However, there also is a shadow world that can make or break a film’s chances, one that lies in the offices of distribution and marketing executives. To understand its power, consider the Best Picture win for “Green Book.”
Green Book (Universal) Best Picture, Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay
This time last year, “Green Book” was not in the Oscar conversation. Universal initially planned to release the $23 million, adult-skewing drama at Thanksgiving, with a wide release of more than 2,500 screens. The Thanksgiving-adjacent date would give it a chance to acquire older audiences, much as 20th Century Fox did the year prior with “Murder on the Orient Express;” that title grossed over $100 million domestic with little consideration for Oscar chances (and it proved to have none). If “Green Book” was all but gone by Christmas, Universal had plenty to keep itself busy with Peter Jackson’s “Mortal Engines” and Robert Zemeckis’ “Welcome to Marwen.”
And then: “Green Book” went into test screenings that were, as they say, through the roof. The Toronto International Film Festival premiere led to the festival’s Oscar-predictive People’s Choice award. However, as November approached, Universal saw that the tracking had failed to catch up to the public sentiment that it believed lay dormant.
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So, the studio executives (along with film partners Participant and Amblin) reconsidered. Instead of going wide, they took a big risk and retreated. The film debuted November 16 in 25 theaters in just 17 cities. It was a gamble: Rather than try to grab theaters and capitalize on interest that had so far failed to materialize, the studio would hold back and allow public sentiment to catch up. As word of mouth spread, the film would pick up theaters.
Initial results were unimpressive. With a per-theater average at a mediocre $12,000, we described the results as “wobbly;” others called them far worse. Four theaters in New York and Los Angeles came to less than $25,000, numbers that placed it below films like “Wildlife,” “Mid90s,” “A Boy Erased,” and “Colette.”
By then, it was too late to change course. The film expanded to about 1,000 theaters over the Thanksgiving holiday, to adequate but still-unimpressive results.
Universal saw it differently. Not only did it have confidence in word of mouth, it also viewed those initial dates as extensive previews. The result was an A+ Cinemascore, and evidence that the gamble could pay off. The film held its theaters, and its averages, in the heart of early December box office. The hope was to sustain top theaters through Christmas, then rebound wide with nominations in mid-January.
Here, Universal got help from the silk purse from the sow’s ear that was “Mortal Engines.” It was such a disaster that the theaters were able to find more space for “Green Book.” As a result, it sustained key runs, and gross, as awards interest increased. In mid-January, parallel to its Golden Globes wins and Oscar nominations, it jumped to over 2,000 theaters.
As a result, “Green Book” was the sole Best Picture nominee to place in the top 10 during the voting period. That testament to public response was a critical counterbalance to ongoing criticism of the film, and added credibility to key wins from the Globes and the Producers Guild.
Without that risky distribution strategy, “Green Book” would not have sustained the momentum needed to compete. There was internal Oscar resistance led by no directing nomination, as well as little craft recognition outside the key Film Editing category. Box-office success held the film’s place in the awards conversation, even though it paled in comparison to the three Best Picture contenders that made over $200 million. That said: It found its greatest popularity with audiences very similar to Academy members.
Finally, while studios are still complaining how much Netflix spent to promote “Roma,” Universal had the scratch to keep “Green Book” going when its grosses didn’t seem to justify it. Now, with the value of major Oscar wins, it’s an investment that can pay off.
A Star Is Born (Warner Bros.) Best Song
Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut presented as the leading Best Picture candidate after its Venice and Toronto showings. However, while it scored in nominations (though missed Director), it saw its major categories fizzle. Some might argue it would have been better served with a later release, but its prime fall date after its festival launches saw great response — massive financial success and career-boosting results for all involved. (Surprisingly, the film never was #1, although it held as #2 for four weeks.)
If Beale Street Could Talk and “Vice” (Annapurna) Supporting Actress, “Beale Street;” Makeup and Hairstyling, “Vice”
Credit Annapurna with being the only company to get top-category nominations for December releases. Both titles were risky ventures that needed all the awards boosting they could get.
Their release patterns showed modest success. “Beale Street” settled on a mid-December platform date, where it opened to about half the numbers of Barry Jenkins’ earlier “Moonlight.” It added Christmas runs and went wider around Oscar nominations.
“Beale” was backed with the hope of becoming a bigger awards player. It grossed under $15 million, below other 2018 African-American centered releases like “BlackKklansman, “The Hate U Give,” and Annapurna’s own “Sorry to Bother You.” The win will elevate ancillary revenues and reinforce the company’s image as a prestige distributor, always helpful in attracting top filmmakers.
“Vice” was a much bigger play. Like Peter Farrelly, Adam McKay was a comedy director now making films intended to generate awards attention. It cost around $60 million, and its political content made awards attention essential. Annapurna opted for a wide Christmas Day release, after the Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe nominations. It managed to lead all contenders in Globe nominations, while scoring two SAG noms.
However, its $47 million gross and single craft-category Oscar is far less than Annapurna needed. They wanted top wins, including Best Picture, but at a minimum Best Actor for Christian Bale. However, it never rose above #6 at the box office, falling quickly after it maximized totals from holiday play.
Black Panther (Disney) Best Original Score, Production Design, Costume Design
A contender until the end, “Black Panther” was the biggest-grossing Best Picture nominee since “Avatar;” perhaps even more impressive, it was also a rare nominee that opened a full year before the awards.
Disney and Marvel did a great job on the film. Would a later opening have meant more awards? Maybe. Still, for a film released so early to get that far is just as impressive.
Bohemian Rhapsody (20th Century Fox) Best Actor, Film Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing
This one was the miracle: Fox went from a Bryan Singer production disaster to four statuettes. With mediocre reviews and fresh Singer allegations, the early November release suggested a quick playoff. However, the public had other ideas. They responded to the retro feel and it opened to $51 million. Best Actor winner Rami Malek also had the advantage of portraying a well-known, larger-than-life character (a real Oscar asset). This helped the film unexpectedly score major nominations from SAG and the Golden Globes, both known for including less critically acclaimed titles in their choices.
The momentum continued to build. The film held through the holidays, and then kept playing. While Malek and Bale both won at the Globes. “Bohemian Rhapsody” won the popularity contest. Even with seven weeks of playtime before “Vice,” “Rhapsody” grossed more post-Oscar nominations. That certainly helped Oscar voters feel more comfortable with their populist choice.
The Favourite (Fox Searchlight) Best Actress
“The Favourite” received 10 Oscar nominations, tying with “Roma” for lead. Although it only received one Oscar win, the Olivia Colman upset proved its prowess at the game.
Fox Searchlight positioned the film for a prime platform release the day after Thanksgiving. It grossed $32 million, substantially below 2017 contenders “The Shape of Water” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” But for a Yorgos Lanthimos period film, that’s still impressive. It’s hard to think how Searchlight could have handled this better. It had a perfect September festival launch, maintained its presence throughout voting, and will reap the rewards of its victory with substantial home viewing. So far, its international take exceeds domestic with over $50 million and the likelihood of more to come.
BlackKklansman (Focus) Best Adapted Screenplay
Focus Features chose an August release date. The result was a nearly $50 million gross domestic, and nearly that in foreign. That’s an excellent result for a Spike Lee film; only “Inside Man” is bigger in this century, and most of his films struggle to reach $10 million.
With its Cannes premiere, a release before the September festivals was logical; Focus and Lee also chose the date to mark the one-year anniversary of the 2017 Charlottesville riots. August has also been a good date for other African-American films like “The Butler” and “Fruitvale Station,” and the lack of competition allowed the film to reach a broad swath of adult viewers of all demographics. That let its strong reviews stand out without the dominant pressure of awards chatter, and it thrived at a lower marketing expense.
Spike Lee won his first competitive Oscar, along with his first directing nomination and four other nominations for the film, including Best Picture. It’s unclear whether the film have won with a later release date, but the strategy gave Focus its top-grossing film of the year with real gravitas. Mission accomplished.
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Roma (Netflix) Won Director, Cinematography, Foreign Language Film
We’ve written volumes on this and there is more to say, including a projection of how this might have performed with a traditional release. Our estimate is that it is approaching $4 million in gross, despite the boycott of most theater chains.
Clearly, streaming was a factor in its Best Picture loss, but its three wins and overall awards presence is also a validation of its strategy. Few other subtitled films have ever come this close to winning — and this was the first to win Director.