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Heading Into the Oscars, Best-Picture Frontrunners ‘1917’ and ‘Parasite’ Ride Box Office Surge

When it comes to winning Oscars, timing is often everything.

“1917”

In its fourth weekend of wide domestic play, Universal booked “1917” in 3,987 theaters, more screens than any other award-season Best Picture contender. Both last year’s “Black Panther” and this year’s “Joker” had a wider breaks on over 4000 screens, but long before their Oscar nominations. And many awards-contenders sustain runs through Oscar voting and beyond, but not at this level.

“1917” has grossed $120 million domestic so far, which is boosting its perception as the Best Picture frontrunner. But history also suggests that a surefire Best Picture win is never a done deal.

For one thing, Neon’s “Parasite,” the main threat to “1917,” is also riding an impressive box office wave (at a lower total). Meantime, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (Sony) –which has grossed only a little less than both combined, and boasts reviews nearly equal to “Parasite” and substantially better than “1917”–could win fewer awards. And Netflix’s “The Irishman,” with a minimal theatrical presence, risks a shutout Sunday night.

The Oscar show will reveal the eventual winners, whatever their pre-awards assessments. Here’s a hard-nosed appraisal of how box office relates to Oscar wins.

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“The Sound of Music”

Current hits often used to win Best Picture.

Until the 1990s, the Best Picture Oscar often went to one of the year’s top-grossers. The growth of the specialized side of the industry, driven by marketing juggernaut Miramax, as well as the advent of screeners and online availability, democratized the process so that top box office success no longer correlated to Oscar glory. It has been 16 years since the Best Picture winner was also among the year’s top ten box-office performers: “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” was the top-grossing film from 2003.

For the 91 previous years, at least 34 winners grossed the equivalent of today’s $200 million domestic or more (within reach for “1917”). That includes blockbusters “Gone With the Wind,” “The Sound of Music,” and “Titanic” (ranked 1, 3, and 5 among the biggest domestic grossers). But “Forrest Gump” as recently as 25 years ago grossed over $700 million and “Kramer Vs. Kramer” $384 million. (If those two titles got made today, they’d likely wind up, like “Marriage Story,” at Netflix.)

In recent years, current hits don’t tend to win Best Picture.

It has been a decade since the Academy increased the number of nominees from five to ten. Since then, while over 30 films grossing over $100 million domestic have been nominated, only two (“The King’s Speech” and “Argo”) have won. None of the last seven Best Picture winners reached that milestone.

Of that list, “Green Book” was the biggest with $85 million. That still only made it the #37 biggest 2018 release, behind titles like “Rampage,” “A Wrinkle in Time,” and “Christopher Robin.”

“The Revenant”

Several hits have been strong contenders.

The box office strategy for “1917” is by no means a winning formula. If so, “La La Land” and “The Revenant” would have won, along with concurrent hits “American Sniper,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” and “Hidden Figures.”

Both “La La Land” and “The Revenant” came close to Best Picture (both won Director as well as a lead acting prize). “La La Land,” which reached #2 at the box office and posted its biggest weekend post-nominations, grossed a majority of its $150 million gross after the Oscars. And “The Revenant” did more than 75% of its $184 million post-Oscars as well. Both were December openers, with “The Revenant” sharing with “1917” a platform Christmas Day release.

“The Revenant” had a similar award trajectory to “1917,” with the same gross after four weeks of wide release, also winning the Golden Globe for Drama film and the Director’s Guild. “La La” grossed less by a degree, but claimed the Producers Guild award won by “1917.” The films they lost to — “Spotlight” and “Moonlight” — had grossed about the same or below “Parasite.”

The shortened awards schedule could help “1917.”

By the time Academy members got around to voting, “La La Land” and “The Revenant” were further along in their runs, placing near the bottom of the Top Ten, while “1917” was at  #2 last weekend during the balloting.

It’s hard to make a one-size-fits-all case, since the calendar has shifted by three weeks from the usual Oscars date in late February or early March. One extreme case,  Best Picture Oscar-winner “Titanic,” held on to the #1 spot from its December opening through March.

Another war film, “The Deer Hunter,” pursued the most radical and risky pre-Oscar release ever. After a one-week qualifying run in mid-December in New York and Los Angeles, the movie disappeared from theaters. After screening only for Academy voters, the movie reopened three days after the February 20 nominations, and was propelled by reviews and nominations to immediate success on its way to an (adjusted) $187 million gross and five Oscar wins.

This was early in the era of wide release distribution when films played multi-hundred theaters from the start of their breaks. Universal was the first distributor to time the film’s peak play during the voting period. “The Deer Hunter”‘s presence and success as the top-grossing film during the voting period boosted its chances.

parasite

“Parasite”

Neon

“Parasite” is in better shape than “Moonlight” or “Roma.”

No, its $33 million gross is not close to “1917.” But “Parasite” ticket sales have been at a level multiple times above other recent subtitled hits. Thus “Parasite” rises above a typical non-English film contender or critics’ darling–which might have hurt “Roma,” with its primary Netflix exposure.

The “Parasite” performance has been steady. It has placed no lower than #17 for its 17 weeks in theaters — #14 last weekend despite availability on iTunes and elsewhere. Compare that to “Moonlight,” which sustained some theaters until the awards, but from Christmas forward ranked no higher than #18 and most weeks not even in the Top 20. Yet it won versus the thriving “La La Land.” Neon has done a terrific job at not only maximizing the grosses but also using perceived audience acceptance as a competitive plus.

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” could be this year’s “Dunkirk” or “Saving Private Ryan.”

Assuming it doesn’t win, Quentin Tarantino’s film follows the scenario faced by two other rare adult summer hits from acclaimed directors competing for Best Picture. Both July openers, Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” and Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” were among the best-reviewed of their years. “Ryan” was the top grosser for the year, while “Dunkirk” was just shy of the Top Ten. They both lost to lower-grossing, less well-reviewed films that were current during the voting.

Though not at the review-level of those films, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” still scored better on Metacritic than “1917.” Tarantino is a hugely popular director who has yet to win for Best Picture or Director, unlike Sam Mendes. “Once” stars Hollywood royalty Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, versus the unknown leads of “1917.” And “Once” would mark the first-ever movie entirely shot in Los Angeles to win, with a show business story film world story (which helped “The Artist,” “Birdman,” and “Argo”). “Once” and “1917” both have ten nominations. Yet one looks like a long shot, partly because it is old news, while the other shines like a bright new penny.

If “1917” wins, credit Universal’s high risk/high-reward release strategy that fired perfectly right through the big night.

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