History says best pic champs often triumph over rivals at the box office as well

The Oscars celebrate artistic success, not commercial gain.

If it were the latter, a lot of a lot of time, money and effort could be saved by simply shoveling a bunch of statuettes in the direction of “Shrek 2,” “Spider-Man 2,” “The Passion of the Christ” and “The Incredibles,” the four top-grossing films in the U.S. last year, and be done with it.

But box office receipts should not be entirely unrelated to kudos. After all, Hollywood is populated by filmmakers who work with the assumption and hope that quality work will find financial rewards.

So, does the B.O. play any role in determining which pics take home Oscars? Luckily, this is a quantifiable question, and based on the awards handed out at the last four ceremonies, the winners made more money than the nominees that go home empty-handed. Since 1999, the average final gross for an Oscar winner was $115 million, while the nominees only took in $66 million. Much of the winner’s advantage is due largely to the $377 million behemoth, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.”

But even if you leave “Rings” out, winners still have a $94 million to $66 million advantage vs. their nonwinning brethren.

Those figures are derived from a look at the grosses of all the films nominated in the big four Oscar categories the last four seasons: picture, actor, actress and director.

What’s most interesting is if you begin to look at the grosses of these films at various points of the awards season — on the night of the Golden Globes, when the Oscar nominations are announced and the night of the Oscar ceremony. At every point, the films that eventually took gold had a B.O. advantage over the other nominees.

For instance, over the past five years, the eventual winning films — minus “Rings” again — have an average gross of $63 million the night of the Globes, while the nominees are at $56 million. By Oscar night, the divide grows to $84 million to $64 million.Averages are well and good, but does box office help predict the winners in individual races?

Well, sort of. In the four big-ticket races over the last five years (a total of 20 contests), the winners have had the highest gross on Oscar night just four times. Six winners, though, have had the second-highest cume in their categories. For instance, “Gladiator” was the highest-grossing film competing for picture in 2000, while it was only the second-highest-grossing pic in the actor race. Russell Crowe beat out Tom Hanks in “Cast Away.”

(Years are based on the release date of the film, not the year the Oscar was handed out.)

Together, the films with either the biggest or second-biggest gross have won their categories nearly two-thirds of the time. There are plenty of exceptions, however. When Adrien Brody and Roman Polanski won actor and director for “The Pianist” in 2003, they both had to beat three other pictures that had done bigger biz at the box office.

But one rule has been hard and fast over the past five years: in the big-ticket categories, the nominee with the lowest gross in a category has never won. Not once.

Conventional wisdom among Oscar campaign planners is that small and big films can do well at the Oscars. If a film is a prestige project, with a modest budget and ambitions, low grosses aren’t held against it. However, for the films with big pricetags, Oscar is thought to fault those that miss the mark.

Whether it’s a big or small film, one thing all Oscar honorees seem to have in common is that they make a lot of money in between when the nominations are announced and when the kudos are handed out.

Last year in the actress category, “Monster” had only grossed $6 million when Charlize Theron was nominated for actress, the lowest take of all the films repped in the category; “Something’s Gotta Give” with Diane Keaton had taken in $107 million; “Whale Rider,” starring Keisha Castle-Hughes and released the prior summer, had brought in nearly $21 million; Naomi Watts starrer “21 Grams” was at $12 million; and “In America,” toplining Samantha Morton, was at $9 million.

However, everything changed by Oscar night a month later. “Monster” had surged to $27 million, making it the second-highest-grossing picture in the group, ahead of “21 Grams’ ” $16 million and “In America’s” $14 million.

So how do this year’s crop of Oscar contenders measure up at the box office? It’s early, but so far they’ve been fairly weak.

None of the best picture noms — “Sideways,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “The Aviator,” “Ray” and “Finding Neverland” — have earned $100 million. You have to go back to 1985 to find a year where none of the pic noms earned more than $100 million. The last time that the five films hadn’t reached $100 million at the time noms were announced was for the 1989 group, when “Driving Miss Daisy” beat out “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Dead Poets Society,” “Field of Dreams” and “My Left Foot.”One factor is later release dates, which means that many films simply haven’t had a chance to earn much at the box office. Distribs seem to be holding back many of this season’s stronger contenders in hopes of a big pop once they (hopefully) win a big prize.

Even as “Sideways” was sweeping critics’ lists and early prizes, Fox Searchlight actually reduced its run, from 499 in early December to 370 in mid-January. But with its noms, it went wide again on Jan. 28. Likewise, Warner Bros. didn’t take “Million Dollar Baby” wide until the after noms were announced.

Still, the average gross of the films competing for the major awards this year looks puny — just $25 million when the noms were announced, compared to the $62 million average over the previous five years.

Ultimately, this year’s Oscar contenders may turn into blockbusters. “Chicago,” 2003′s picture winner, eventually earned $171 million, though it was only at $27 million on the night of the Golden Globes. But perhaps the trend of Oscar winners faring well proves that, as veteran Oscar campaigner Harvey Weinstein insists, good films are good business. You could probably also add a corollary: Good awards campaigns are good marketing.

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