When the final envelope is opened on Oscar night, the picture deemed to be the year’s best is likely to be unfamiliar to most of the tens of millions of people watching the awards show.
That’s because “Boyhood” and “Birdman,” the two frontrunners to nab best picture on Sunday night, are box office lightweights when measured against past winners. It’s a sign that Academy Awards voters are more moved by art than commerce when it comes to handing out the top prize.
“It says to me that the Oscars are agnostic when it comes to popularity,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak. “Often times the most challenging movies aren’t the ones that generate the most popular attention from audiences.”
“Birdman,” with $37.7 million in receipts, and “Boyhood,” with $25.3 million, rank as arthouse hits and enjoyed a healthy return on their $18 million and $4 million production budgets, respectively. However, if either film wins, it will be the lowest-grossing best picture recipient since “The Hurt Locker” took the honor in 2009, and the second lowest-grossing best picture winner in the past 40 years.
It’s not just those two awards hopefuls. With the exception of “American Sniper” and “The Imitation Game,” none of the best picture nominees looks likely to top $100 million domestically. In contrast, last year, four contenders — “Gravity, ” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “American Hustle” and “Captain Phillips” — passed that benchmark. Taken as a whole, this year’s group represents the lowest-grossing collection of best picture nominees since the category expanded from five to a possible 10 pictures in 2009.
That said, it’s an odd year from a box office perspective. If “American Sniper” defies the odds and snags best picture, it will be the highest-grossing winner since 2003’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” and the fourth highest-grossing film when not adjusted for inflation to ever earn the prize, behind “Titanic,” “Forrest Gump” and the J.R.R. Tolkien adaptation.
The low grosses could impact ratings for the Oscar telecast, especially given that for all his emceeing experience overseeing the Tonys and Emmys, host Neil Patrick Harris isn’t an A-list draw.
“The Oscars are not that different from the Super Bowl or the World Series in that when there are teams that more people follow and are invested in, it translates into higher ratings,” said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “I’m not saying people aren’t going to watch the Oscars, but they’re not going to be as invested in it as they would be had ‘Gone Girl’ or ‘Interstellar’ made the cut.”
The low grosses extend beyond the likely best picture winners. Many of the leading acting contenders also hail from films that were more admired than seen. Julianne Moore is widely expected to win best actress for playing a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s in “Still Alice,” which has made a paltry $7.9 million. Likewise, J.K. Simmons should pick up best supporting actor for his role as an emotionally abusive jazz instructor in “Whiplash” — a picture that earned $11.3 million domestically and was, as Forbes’ Scott Mendelson noted, a case of buzz trumping box office.
If Moore prevails, “Still Alice” will represent the lowest-grossing film with a best actress winner since 1994’s “Blue Sky” pulled in $3.4 million and earned a statue for Jessica Lange. “Whiplash” would be the lowest-grossing best supporting actor victor since 2011’s “Beginners” won for Christopher Plummer and among the lowest-grossing prize winners in the category.
People will get around to seeing most of the Oscar winners, they just may not do so on the bigscreen, analysts say.
“These films will benefit massively on-demand and on home video,” said Dergarabedian. “It becomes a smallscreen bonus for these films.”