Why Are Oscar Contenders Flopping at the Box Office?

Oscar Hopeful Movies Struggling at Box
Courtesy of SPC

An indie film scene that barely registered a pulse all year finally showed flickers of life last weekend.

Spotlight,” a hard-hitting drama about the Boston Globe’s investigation of the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal, and “Brooklyn,” an elegiac period romance about an Irish woman adjusting to a new life in America, both opened respectably in limited release. The newspaper picture logged $295,009 across five theaters for a strong $59,002 per-screen average, while the immigrant drama posted a $187,281 from five venues, representing a solid per-screen average of $37,456.

The critical test will come in the coming weeks as the two films try to build on that momentum,slowly adding theaters with the hopes of attracting crowds over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. If they are successful, “Spotlight” and “Brooklyn,” both of which are expected to be Best Picture contenders, will buck a worrying trend. This year, chasing Oscar gold is proving to be financially ruinous.

Already pictures like “Truth,” a look at “60 Minutes'” investigation of George W. Bush’s national guard record, and “99 Homes,” a drama about the mortgage foreclosure crisis, have flopped badly despite scoring respectful reviews. They are joined in their struggles by the likes of gay rights drama “Freeheld,” the period piece “Suffragette,” and the cooking comedy “Burnt” with Bradley Cooper. “Beasts of No Nation,” a child soldiers drama from “True Detective’s” Cary Fukunaga collapsed during its limited theatrical run, although the streaming service claims that viewers at home are watching the film in greater numbers.

These whiffs follow a summer that saw Sundance favorites like “Dope,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” and “Diary of a Teenage Girl” wilt at the multiplexes. Some of these films were mediocre, but the scale of the carnage in the awards-bait space is troubling. It raises questions about the commercial viability of challenging works of art made for adults.

“It’s such a crowded marketplace that it’s really hard to cut through the clutter and shine,” said Jason Cassidy, chief marketing officer at Open Road, the studio behind “Dope” and “Spotlight.” A lot of pedigree films haven’t found their footing.”

A few specialty pictures have worked, such as “Woman in Gold” with Helen Mirren ($33.3 million) and “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” ( $33.1 million), but the number of hits trails last year when films like “St. Vincent,” “Birdman,” “The Imitation Game,” and “Wild” were able to turn critical affection into solid box office returns. Even then, last year’s crop of Oscar nominees caught flack for being little seen by the general public.

Prestige pictures from mainstream studios have also been battered. “Steve Jobs,” one of the most acclaimed pictures of the year, struck out in wide release. Last weekend, the picture was dropped from 2,000 theaters, an acknowledgement  that the audience isn’t coming out for the biopic about the Apple founder. “Black Mass,” a gangster drama that boasts Johnny Depp in a showboat role as Whitey Bulger, opened respectably, but has more or less wrapped up its domestic run with $62 million — not a great result for a picture that cost nearly as much to make. A 3D angle and a technically dazzling set-piece couldn’t get ticket-buyers to check out “The Walk,” the story of a tightrope stunt involving the Twin Towers. And political comedy “Our Brand is Crisis,” which some Oscar watchers thought would propel Sandra Bullock back into the awards race, instead will go down as one of the actress’ biggest turkeys, making less than $6 million in two weeks of release.

In a piece in the New York Times, Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes argue that the disappointing results this fall are a case of feast and famine. They contrast the outsized success of pictures like “Spectre” and “The Martian” with massive flops like “Pan,” believing the results signal that customers are either flocking to the multiplexes or steering clear altogether. In the process, these polar opposite reactions are squeezing out the mid-range hit.

Improvements in the size and quality of televisions, as well as the wealth of quality small-screen programming remain popular culprits. But some distribution executives believe there are other things at play. As evidence, they point to a presidential election that has elevated outsiders like Donald Trump and Ben Carson to front-runner status and given vent to screeds against illegal immigration, Wall Street malfeasance, and the worthlessness of the political classes. People are mad and dissatisfaction is the order of the day.

“I think society is depressed,” said one veteran distribution executive. “People do not want to see things that disturb them. The entertainment factor is critical right now. Audiences don’t want to feel like they’re being punished.”

Pictures like “Bridge of Spies” appear to be taking hold, the executive argues, because they present an optimistic view of humanity. Unlike in “Truth,” where journalistic errors lead to a discredited report, or “Steve Jobs,”  a warts-and-all portrait of a prickly billionaire, the films that work are the ones where ordinary, decent people triumph.

Whether or not a national malaise is to blame, many studio executives are hoping that last weekend’s results signal a shift. They hope that “Spotlight” and “Brooklyn” are warmly received as they branch out beyond major cities like New York City and Los Angeles. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking given that “The Martian” didn’t have a spillover effect, but studio executives believe that a few hit films lift the overall market. They attract crowds who see trailers and posters and are inspired to check out other movies. If that happens, it would be welcome news for upcoming arthouse pictures like “The Danish Girl” and “Carol,” to say nothing of more expensive, adult-oriented studio offerings such as “Concussion” with Will Smith and “The Revenant” with Leonardo DiCaprio.

“There could be an awakening as people realize that there all these great films out there,” said Frank Rodriguez, senior vice president of distribution at Fox Searchlight. “I think there could be a renaissance in these last few months.”

If things don’t get better soon, studios and producers might not be able to afford to be in the Oscar race. Awards are great, but money usually matters more.

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  1. David says:

    The truth of the matter is, were it not for the success of these animated, dinosaur and superhero features that are spoken of with such disdain, high brow box office disasters like burnt, truth, and spotlight would never have a chance to be made let alone nominated for Best Picture. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

  2. Carly says:

    I hate to say it, but maybe it’s because the American public doesn’t have the attention span for good stories anymore. Something comes out that is 90% computer generated and has nothing but bland action sequences and we’ll gobble that shit up but if there’s an understated movie with great acting, writing, production people will just be like “Meh where’s the dinosaurs and superheroes” and leave.

    these days, a movie is either entertaining but mind-numbingly stupid (Age of Ultron) or has a good story and acting but is boring to watch or soul-suckingly depressing (any Oscar-y movie) There is no balance.
    And because of this, I’m almost ashamed to be an American.

  3. Andrew says:

    I’ve personally found that this years crop of Oscar contenders feel like movies-of-the-week more than cutting edge narrative. Even the mentioned Spotlight just feels like another ripped from headlines drama. And a film like Truth could have premiered on HBO. Aside from the upcoming Revenant, there hasn’t been anything that looks like it’s pushing any real boundaries. We’ll see what December brings, but so far I’ve been perfectly happy to stick to cable TV.

  4. She says:

    If the filmmakers and/or studios would just put these films out all year instead of in one rushed lump during the holiday awards season (aka November-December), people would have more time and ability to see them. Who has time now? During the summer there was practically nothing to go out and see in theaters that was adult-themed. That’s a time to capitalize. Also if they would give a one year window before releasing on Netflix or VOD, it would also help to force people to go out to the theater to see them (if only just to keep up with the conversations). Lowering matinee fees or bringing back “Dollar days” could also help bring up attendance, as could cracking down on internet piracy, especially when sanctioned/enabled by illegal streaming links on Google’s ad-based Youtube. Why would people pay when they can sit home and get something for “free?” It’s stealing and Google needs to be held accountable because they are profiting from it. Why can just about anyone upload an entire copyright protected film and make money off of it without having to prove ownership? Hollywood needs to fight Siicone Valley and bring back a new version of SOPA that will allow for “some” limited fair use *i.e. a five second clip in a video mashup), but which will target blatant uploading of full-length feature films.

  5. jazz says:

    the best movies and performances of any year have always been ‘less performing’ than most at the box office…

    the indi films that bring a richness and depth to both the characters and their storylines…rarely have the oscars ever conceded to what was really the best…

    but…be that as it may, even the ‘hollywood version of the best’ (ie: anything tom hanks is starring in…), can’t catch a break at the box office anymore for one very simple reason…

    the movie going audience have lowered the bar in their viewing preferences, thinking crap like ‘the avengers’ deserves their money…it’s no wonder we have reboots and remakes galore…it’s not so much that the film industry is fresh out of ideas…it’s that the movie going audience is fresh out of understanding any ideas, so they need to be spoonfed this pablum…

    anything with a perception of intelligence doesn’t stand a chance anymore…

  6. It’s the pundits in the business who decide who the “Oscar contenders” are and they pride in choosing people from movies that exust in a PC world. That would be fine if PC appealed to the general populous, but it doesn’t. So. perhaps the choice of who should be nominated should be seen from a different frame of reference. I know the business is all ga-ga over Cate Blanchett and her role in “Truth,” but the public would probably pay a lot more attention is she were nominated for playing Lady Tremaine in Cinderella since the movie was pretty good and it made $200,000,000+.

  7. LuKasAV6 says:

    In recent years, many films that a number of critics cited as the “best of the year” have been very disappointing and frankly quite forgettable. I’ve been burnt one too many times.

  8. Mjkbk says:

    Why is Variety somehow worried that indie “Oscar-contenders” are bombing at the box office? When have the Academy and the entertainment media EVER cared if an arthouse film was a crowd-pleaser?

    Can we say NEVER? This is a non-mover, possibly fabricated on a slow news day. Nothing new here, move along……

  9. jonnyrp says:

    See how they were selling, or trying to sell Black Mess. Someone close to me told me before it was even out that Johnny Depp’s career would be back on track. That he would be nominated for an oscar. So he read. The medias predicting such thing before a movie is out would either help sell the film (In their own eyes) or completly loose an audience that don’t even care about a certain actor being nominated or not. This isn’t what appeals to movie goers.

    Yet, it seems to be what appeals to an industry that want to shove down our throats the fact that fewer stars to watch means only the best remain alive. Which i disagree with. With an indie film, Rated-R, add to this the subject (You don’t usually bring kids to a film such as Black Mess.), you have loads of reasons why it’ll flop. I mean, investors could pay million dollars for a 1 million dollar film with Depp only because it is Johnny Depp… It doesn’t mean that the star alone can sell a film with x or y subject matter. Hence, why i don’t believe that true equality will be achieved or is even supported in the world of entertainment.

    Adam Sandler can’t sell a rated r comedy for shit. I supposed teenagers and kids gathered together to try and see “That’s my boy” but were turned around since they had no one 17 and up with them in the US. Maybe, if they’re smart they sneak out of another film and go see them R rated, still the other film made the cash.

  10. I think the issues is that many of these “oscar bait” films are just not that interesting. Sorry Sandy, I don’t care about political strategists in Bolivia when Donald Trump is ruining my appetite everywhere I look. I don’t care about Steve Jobs; he was a rich, entitled 1 percenter. And Jon Favreau already did Burnt, he just called it Chef. DiCaprio slept in an animal carcass for Revenant – is that supposed to tempt moviegoers?

    I need an engaging story, preferably something I don’t know much about. And while I don’t have to have a happy ending, please don’t spent 2 hours depressing me. Spotlight looks good so I plan to see it. The Danish Girl was excellent, and I hope it finds an audience. The rest of these films – I feel like Hollywood green lit them not because they were creative stories needing to be told, but because Hollywood wanted a little golden man.

  11. EK says:

    There is a thread of negativity and depression that weaves its way through the indie and non-tent pole studio pictures that makes them collectively unattractive and not what constitutes a good night out. People have enough to worry about in their daily lives so why pay to suffer through more angst at he cinema and pay those prices for tickets and concessions, not to mention parking, baby sitters and maybe even dinner (just skip the former and enjoy the latter with a nice bottle of wine). Small wonder that big Hollywood is fixated on comic books and outer space; in those worlds there is escape on the big screen. The rest are mostly costly TV fare anymore. Awards don’t matter. Good old Hollywood audience pleasers which entertain rather than burden an audience is the answer. Filmmakers today tend to take themselves too seriously; they need to recognize that they are producing a product for mass consumption not a constant flow of burdensome pap, no matter how artistic or well-meaning it is. Greenlighters around town had better become mindful of this and mix their release schedules more carefully. The current cocktail is implantable.

  12. bostonpopcorn says:

    I think in an nutshell the problem is this: Hollywood makes movies IT wants to see made, stories IT cares about, and such. They don’t make much audiences want to see – look at the huge unexpected success of some of the faith based films to see that; most critics hate those and yet the public eat them up. As for Sundance successes like “Dope” and “Me and Earl”, it comes down to a poor marketing plan, and even poorer timing. Both of those films opened against a bigger than expected blockbuster (“Me And Earl” opened opposite the juggernaut that was “Jurassic World”, “Dope” against “Inside Out” AND a larger “Me and Earl” roll out) and basically had NO chance for traction since those blockbuster titles were in 5 to 7 screens. “Me and Earl” never went out to major multiplexes in the Boston market except AMC Boston Common so I’m not sure what they mean by “multiplex” in regards to that title, but “Dope” was all over and still tanked. It was the kind of film they should have done a platform release but they went wide then scratched their head when people had no idea what it was. And where “Me and Earl” had awareness and could use a new campaign and a re-release now while the iron is hot and Oscar could come calling, “Dope” was re-serviced in late summer, again with NO fanfare whatsoever. Bad marketing department – no cookie!

  13. Aga says:

    The question should be – why 85 % of movies which aren’t part of well-known franchise flopped ? It doesn’t matter if they are “Oscar contenders” or not.
    I must admit I’m terrified of the citizens of the USA nowadays, and not that I care about their fate but the USA still has some influence on the international politic.

  14. bkbeach4x4 says:

    Usually a disconnect with an audience is caused by a disconnect with the audience.

  15. 85wzen says:

    Well after Crash won and then last year Birdman… I don’t think it matters who wins this year do you? Not like they know what they are doing.

  16. Vic Nardozza says:

    Most of these “duds” I will watch when they are on cable or Netflix. But they just aren’t compelling enough for me to drive to a theater and drop $12+. That’s resereved for movies like The Martian.

  17. No says:

    Black Mass cost $53m to make, $62m is pretty respectable for it even if you think it didn’t make a profit. It’s an R rated gangster film after all. I’m sure it’ll make a profit overseas.

    • LOL says:

      One hates to do this to you only because one hates it when others to it to oneself, but here goes:

      Black Mass, a Warner Bros. picture,cost $53m to produce plus probably as much in P&A, thus let’s say $100m so far.

      Black Mass has raked in $62m, though exhibitors will keep half of that, so we’re talking little over $30m going back to the studio.

      A high definition pirated copy of Black Mass has been available on the Internet since September, even though the film is yet to release in most international territories. Black Mass is the kind of film that appeals to Netflix users, which means potential foreign audiences may have already seen it and the rest will wait for a legitimate home video release.

      I love you, man.

      • Greg says:

        As one might imagine, or even two, quite possibly, that was one well-mannered response to another one’s post. Good job.

  18. No Oscar Gal says:

    Jobs is the best film this year but no reason to exist (other than a take down), but it’s a great film.

    I think the real reason these films are tanking is because they suck and they suck because they are not original in any way (and they’re negative and preachy). Anyone with 1/2 a brain knows that Dan Rather was A TOTAL JERK… and who wants to see a film about his worst moment. And Spotlight..? God, who cares? No matter what journos think, they are not heroes- they’re jerks for the most part and not deserving of the Full Monty. I would not see that film even if it included a 100 $ bill… no thank you. I like Catholics… The film has zero nuance, but I still think the reason it’s a clown is because is makes journos heroes (and we all know better).

    And who cares about a lesbian/rights film..? That’s a miss; and Suffragte? Must you ask us to suffer through it; and it has TERRIBLE reviews… so what are you on about?

    Danish Girl and Carol… who cares about a H/wood gay pic.. enough. They will flop and so they should. Concussion pulls its punches; and in the actual reality narrative, it was female brain doc who took ’em down and should be the focus of the story… sorry Will, no prize, but it should do OK… but other than McDonald’s, who likes the NFL? And enough of these stories pulled from the headlines. How many times must we suffer through them.

    But I think the real trouble is the cut back in development, the craft of s/writing is not being nurtured and Ivy League grads are running to LA to make their tedious TV shows… they don’t give a damn about Story, only want residuals and twitter followers… And vulgarity and nudity (punks).

    But ‘Truth’, come on… the writing was on the wall with that one; and Homosexuals are no longer a persecuted minority…. it’s actually flipped (they persecute us now); so who wants to see a film about their ‘struggles’. It’s sad they think it’s relevant. It’s not. It’s mainstream and when you are mainstream… you’re done as far as offering new angles…

  19. John Th says:

    Gee, I don’t know, because Hollywood is completely out of touch with the American people

  20. Ben says:

    Another poster said it here too, a lot of these films are simply not that good.
    When a movie smells like it is bating praise and awards it rings false. At one time it somewhat worked for movies but I think that it works less and less, and it drives people away from the movies.

  21. Jimmy says:

    I think it just goes to show how mindless most of the country is. They’ll flock to brainless big budget franchise movies but shiver at the thought of seeing a movie about something or a serious topic. I find movies about something to be such a more moving, thought provoking and emotional experience of going to see movies. I wish there was a market for these smaller type films aimed at adult audiences. Perhaps smaller character driven dramas and indies should just premiere on VOD. Since they’re not attracting audiences at the cinemas, why not just make them available on VOD platforms for those all over the country to enjoy?

  22. Jonathan Burns says:

    The public want entertainment, especially when you consider ticket and snack cost.
    They won’t fork out the money for pretentious drivel that critics and Film Festival judges love.

  23. homosezwut says:

    Wut!?… Just watch Mike Judge’s film from 2006 titled “idiocracy” (www.imdb.com/title/tt0387808/) to help you understand Donald Trump being the Republican front runner for President in 2016 and the unprecedented level of fame & fortune willingly given by the public to the Kardashian clan and Youtube stars like PewDiePie & Smosh (www.theverge.com/2015/10/15/9538117/youtube-top-earning-2015-forbes)…The American public as turned the page…They would rather chug a Redbull while taking selfies than savor a cup of coffee over the morning newspaper…USA! USA! USA!…get used to it :/

  24. 1favored says:

    There is a difference between what people want to see and what stars are able to get made. Until “new” is not a scary word, the audience will continue to shrink and the politics of awards will be out of sink.

  25. John says:

    Jobs is not acclaimed, slow it down. 7.5 average, it’s a respected film, not a beloved one. It can easily be snubbed, even more after bombing shamelessly at the box office.

  26. cee says:

    Could it be that the so called critics do not know what they are talking about.

  27. Nanny Mo says:

    Hollywood’s values are not their costumers values thus the situation, it’s not a big surprise.

  28. Sophie says:

    Steve Jobs as film never looked interesting after all so I can understand its flop in box office. I see much attractive the “Macbeth” film than Jobs.

  29. T0rchwood says:

    Oscar award nominations are based on “political correctness”, not whether anyone wants to see the damn film. A film has to be worth spending $50 on tickets and overpriced snacks and 3 hours of my time, since movies never start on time due to the endless commercials. If Star Wars were eligible, none of these damn films would stand a chance and Star Wars will make more before it is even released in ticket presales than all of these films combined. Stuff that in your pipe and smoke it, hollywood. Yeah, Disney!

  30. Jay! says:

    It’s quite simple: no one wants to see these movies. Subject matter is booooooooooooooooring and quite frankly can’t hold a candle to the dramas of even ten years ago. Movie theatre experience is just about dead in terms of going to enjoy great art. Studios only want to make franchise/superhero movies. Theatres only want to show the same. Trying to watch a film in a theatre is such a chore with all the texting and talking. It’s a dying medium (that digital projection has helped kill off–film rules!).The fact that I went to go see a matinee at 11am last week and the price was $16.00: c’mon. No wonder people are Netflix and chilling.



  31. Bobbi says:

    You, BillUSA, just nailed it! Hollywood, we don’t go to the theater as much, because we don’t like your product and we’re fed up with what YOU think we want to see…and the truth is, it isn’t movies like “TRUTH”…really?

  32. BillUSA says:

    Why Are Oscar Contenders Flopping at the Box Office?

    Do you really need an answer?

    It starts with boring subjects, divisive topics, activist actors, lack of originality, the inflated costs of going to the movies and the ever-present misplaced self-assurance of all involved who think they have to educate the public.

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