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What’s a Best Picture Nomination Really Worth? A Look at Return on Investment

Movie studios are notorious for taking a creative approach to accounting, and that makes it difficult to calculate just how much money is being made. But it’s possible to get a sense of how valuable awards attention can be by comparing the box office results of this year’s nine Oscar nominees for best picture to their reported production budgets.

Calculating return on investment is an imperfect science, as studios won’t say how much they spend on marketing and distribution. Nor does our model factor in TV deals and other licensing pacts. To calculate a rough ROI, Variety measured only production cost and worldwide gross. It’s worth noting that studios don’t receive all the profits; theater owners get roughly half, and most small distributors sell off international rights.

That said, “La La Land,” which leads the Oscar race with 14 noms, is also the big winner when it comes to profit margin. The Lionsgate musical has sung and danced its way to nearly eight times its production budget — not bad at a time when original movie musicals are considered a dying breed. “Lion” (The Weinstein Co.) and “Hidden Figures” (Fox) were also big winners.

For films like those that rely on emotion rather than CGI explosions for their fireworks, there’s a commercial imperative to get on Oscar voters’ radar, as it can be the difference between being widely seen and making a quick exit from multiplexes. “Any time you can put ‘Oscar-nominated’ or ‘Golden Globe-nominated’ in an ad, it helps,” says Eric Handler, an analyst at MKM Partners. “It’s the smaller films that get the biggest bump.”

There’s a spillover effect, too, from awards love. Studios zealously guard their home-entertainment revenue, but movies that get Oscar attention see their value boosted in disc and digital sales and rentals. It gives these movies an evergreen glow they might not otherwise enjoy, with images of that bald-domed golden statue serving as a cinematic version of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. “There are a lot of people who are looking for films that are good, and an Oscar nomination is pretty much a guarantee that they’re going to see a good film,” says Bruce Nash, founder and president of The Numbers, a movie analytics firm.

This year’s best picture nominees weren’t just critical successes; they found a niche with audiences as well — proving that investing in quality scripts and talent is a smart business bet.

“La La Land” (Lionsgate)
Budget: $30 million
Global box office: $294.1 million
ROI: 880.3%
Oscar effect: All hail the king. The tuneful romance picked up a leading 14 nominations and is widely expected to dominate the awards. It has also scored overseas, netting nearly 57% of its gross from foreign markets.

“Lion” (The Weinstein Co.)
Budget: $12 million
Global box office: $70.3 million
ROI: 485.8%
Oscar effect: Hear it roar. The heart-tugging story of a man using Google Earth to find his family broke out of the art-house thanks to awards love. Nearly half of its $31 million in domestic revenue kicked in after it got six nominations.

“Hidden Figures” (Fox)
Budget: $25 million
Global box office: $144.7 million
ROI: 478.8%
Oscar effect: An awards-season breakout. The civil rights drama was still widely in circulation when it was showered with three nominations. It’s the top-grossing nominee domestically
but hasn’t been released yet in many foreign territories.

“Manchester by the Sea” (Amazon/Roadside Attractions)
Budget: $8.5 million
Global box office: $46.1 million
ROI: 442.3%
Oscar effect: Not much of a bump. The boatload of good reviews helped lift the dark drama, but it had been in theaters since October, so mostly it just got bragging rights from being in the best-picture conversation.

“Arrival” (Paramount)
Budget: $47 million
Global box office: $194.8 million
ROI: 314.5%
Oscar effect: Late to the party. The brainy sci-fi thriller had largely wrapped up its theatrical run when nominations were announced. More than 96% of its Stateside haul came before it elbowed in to the best-picture race.

“Hacksaw Ridge” (Lionsgate)
Budget: $40 million
Global box office: $164.3 million
ROI: 310.7%
Oscar effect: Redemption. The World War II drama marks a return to the mainstream for director Mel Gibson.

“Moonlight” (A24)
Budget: $5 million
Global box office: $20.4 million
ROI: 300%
Oscar effect: The little indie that could. The sensitive story of a gay man coming of age in an impoverished corner of Miami has been chugging along since October. More than 77% of its gross came before it earned eight nods.

“Fences” (Paramount)
Budget: $24 million
Global box office: $54 million
ROI: 125%
Oscar effect: Star power triumphs. The combination of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis proved potent, transforming a talky drama into an unlikely box office hit. The film has screened almost exclusively in the U.S.

“Hell or High Water” (CBS Films/Lionsgate)
Budget: $12 million
Global box office: $27 million
ROI: 125%
Oscar effect: Already out to pasture. The crime thriller was on home-entertainment platforms when it earned four nods, but it had already established itself as a summer hit for adults. All its theatrical revenue comes from domestic returns.

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