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

Box Office
by Tom Brueggemann
February 25, 2014 5:12 PM
1 Comment
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'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.

1 Comment

  • Jordan Porch | February 25, 2014 9:39 PMReply

    This is a good article, but it seems unnecessary. When the title said "it's not what you think," I naturally became interested. Good hook. But what I thought was that the release dates of the nominees were earlier this year than last year's. The whole article used unnecessary tactics (assumed knowledge of reader's Oscar knowledge - which obviously the writer of the article thinks is extremely limited, though nobody other than cinephiles read Indiewire - and statistics) when the answer it was getting at was obvious and already known by anyone who cares about the Oscars.

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