When it comes to box office grosses, the Oscars are no popularity contest.
This year’s crop of best picture nominees have received critical plaudits and trunkloads of awards. But that has not, for the most part, translated into massive ticket sales. Only “Get Out” and “Dunkirk” have topped $100 million at the domestic box office and could comfortably be labeled blockbusters. As it stands, this is the lowest-grossing crop of best picture contenders since 2011, a fact that should be sending shivers up the spine of ABC executives as they brace for the March 4 telecast.
“The Oscars are rewarding more and more niche films,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “There’s not a lot to talk about in terms of social media buzz or pop culture significance.”
To be fair, most of these films were never designed to be commercial juggernauts. Seven of the nine nominees — a group that includes “The Shape of Water,” “Darkest Hour” and “Lady Bird” — were platform releases, an industry term for smaller, indie films that open in a modest number of theaters before expanding over weeks and months. It might have been a different story if Academy voters had abandoned their apparent distaste for superhero movies and propelled “Wonder Woman” or “Logan” into contention. Instead, Warner Bros.’ Gal Gadot vehicle was shut out completely, and Fox’s Wolverine sequel had to settle for a screenplay nomination.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expanded the list of best picture contenders in 2009 from five to a possible 10, the hope was that voters would move outside the art-house bubble. Members had been disappointed that Oscar voters had snubbed “The Dark Knight,” and the theory was that by widening the field the organization could make room for films that viewers had actually seen before the envelopes were opened.
But, noted Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at comScore, “The ‘Dark Knight’ effect never really happened.” Though “Avatar,” “The Martian” and a few other box office winners have sneaked in for subsequent awards shows, no comic-book movie has ever received a best picture nomination. Increasingly, it seems, there’s little difference between the Oscars and the Indie Spirit Awards.
The Academy Awards used to be dominated by films from major studios. More than a decade ago, popular successes such as “Gladiator” and “Titanic” were able to walk away with best picture statuettes. But as these companies have gotten more obsessed with spandex heroes, Oscar voters have shown an affinity for indie productions that are more concerned with emotional pyrotechnics than exploding cityscapes. Last year’s victor, “Moonlight,” was the second-lowest-grossing best picture winner in history; the last best picture winner to top $100 million at the Stateside box office was 2012’s “Argo.”
“The Oscars are rewarding more and more niche films.”
Jeff Bock, Exhibitor Relations analyst
Movie studios don’t spend millions on glossy ads and opulent luncheons purely for vanity. An Oscar nomination can goose a film’s commercial prospects. In the aftermath of their best picture nods, “The Shape of Water” saw box office results rise 181%, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” went up 81% and “Lady Bird” enjoyed a 61% increase in ticket sales. That’s not all. Winning also can help increase the value of a film long after it exits cinemas. “There’s an evergreen effect that helps them when it comes to movie rentals or cable deals for years and years to come,” said Bock.
Yet, lower-grossing winners may be a drag on the ceremony’s viewership. Ratings of last year’s telecast fell to a nine-year low, and the most recent Golden Globe Awards, also experienced a decline in popularity.
Brian Hughes, head of audience analysis at Magna Global, cautioned that live programming is down across the board. The culprit could be that people are more interested in their smartphones or prefer watching programming on-demand. It might not come down to the box office returns of “The Shape of Water.” “There’s so much organic viewing change that it’s nearly impossible to determine if there’s any correlation,” Hughes said.
The rise of mobile devices and the popularity of YouTube may be hurting awards shows in other ways: The famously larded evening of singing and dancing, agent thanking and red carpet strutting, could benefit from a tighter edit. “The constant influx of media and smartphones has shortened attention spans,” said Hughes. “It’s harder for people to sit through a three-hour telecast.”
The Shape of Oscar Fodder
Domestic grosses for best picture nominees have been trending downward for the past few years. Aside from “Argo,” prize-winning films like “12 Years a Slave” and “Moonlight” have been dwarfed at multiplexes.