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Why the Oscar Box Office Slump? It's Not What You Think

Photo of Tom Brueggemann By Tom Brueggemann | Thompson on Hollywood February 25, 2014 at 5:12PM

When the Academy decided to extend the list of Best Picture contender to up to 10 (the last three years have had nine), one of the goals was to open up the competition to more widely-seen films. The studios have fallen in line, and one result has been more studio films in the mix, particularly some released at year's end.
'American Hustle'
'American Hustle'

As the 45-day period between the Oscar nominations and the Academy Awards on March 2 heads into the final stretch (the ballot deadline was Tuesday), how much of an Oscar boost did the contenders get? 

'Les Miserables'
'Les Miserables'

Well, this year's entries took in far less during this period than last year. On the surface, this portends a fundamental shift. The NYT's Brooks Barnes suggests that apathy has set in with the public over the awards. But dig deeper and the reasons for the Oscar box office slump become clear. It's the release dates. 

Add up the estimated take for the nine Best Picture contenders (from nominations through next weekend) and there's a huge drop from the same period last year: an estimated $103 million additional gross compared to $324 million last go-round. That means less than a third as much revenue this year. 

What happened?

2014 marks a similar pattern to 2012, when the biggest additional revenue came from "The Descendants, which added $32 million during the period, followed by both "The Artist" and "The Iron Lady" at $25 million more each, all with national breaks and considerable marketing expense. That's more like the range of this year.

For another, the shift of the calendar to one week later this time meant that all the films had already played one week longer, with more gross already banked (with the added value of being a likely Oscar nominees already attached).

But some distinctive differences in release date strategy also came into play, which had little to do with maximizing domestic revenue playing off the nominations, and more to do with both foreign release strategies and domestic home video plans.

The studios have long recognized that going with a top contender with a wide commercial at Christmas can pay off. "Django Unchained" and "Les Miserables" -- both Christmas Day openers -- did massive business that was enhanced by their nomination hauls (reflected in last year's bigger totals). Knowing this, smaller films realize that it's tougher to open against them, and move their dates earlier.

Among this year's top nominees, "12 Years a Slave" opened in October, "Dallas Buyers Club," "Nebraska" and "Philomena" debuted in pre-Thanksgiving November. Given normal release patterns, that meant they widened (in varying degrees) significantly before the nominations. With today's high awareness of awards and advertising clearly pushing consideration, much of the public already attaches "Oscar contender" to films like these irrespective of not yet being official, which adds to their grosses earlier rather than after nominations.

This article is related to: Box Office, Box Office, Box Office, Oscars, Awards Season Roundup, Awards

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.