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Oscar Watch: How Box Office Impacts Oscar Contenders

by Anthony D'Alessandro
November 11, 2010 9:00 AM
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Thompson on Hollywood

Does a film's box office performance have an impact on its Oscar hopes? TOH box office analyst Anthony D'Alessandro crunches the numbers and evaluates the current field of Oscar contenders.

As a groundswell of positive reviews and Oscar buzz have propelled studio adult dramas like The Social Network and The Secretariat at the box office, a number of arthouse releases –Let Me In ($12 million), It’s Kind of a Funny Story ($6.2 million), Conviction ($5.2 million), Never Let Me Go ($2.3 million) and Welcome to the Rileys ($80,000) – have struggled at the multiplex, undermining their chances in a highly competitive award season. 

At the other end of the spectrum, the successes of The Town ($90 million) and For Colored Girls ($23 million) have bolstered their award potential. However, the relationship between box office and awards is tricky. Good grosses don't hurt, but low-grossers can thrive if they get a boost from critics.
 
Here are five things you didn't know about Oscars and box office:

Thompson on Hollywood

1. Studio adult films don't steal audiences away from art houses.
“I went into a screening of ‘Red’ and saw all the adults who normally attend my films,” said one specialty distribution executive, trying to explain why some of his films were flailing. History has shown that studio and arthouse adult titles can co-exist in the market and reap riches together (Slumdog Millionaire and Curious Case of Benjamin Button). Some niche players simply haven’t delivered crossover titles. There has to be a marketing hook to lure audiences. Fall fest circuit hits Black Swan and The King's Speech boast strong story hooks to pull moviegoers. The King’s Speech, like Slumdog Millionaire, is an uplifting human tale about overcoming great odds. Boyle's follow-up, the brutal outdoor survival film 127 Hours is so powerful that not only is it a sell-out in New York and L.A. (grossing more than $340,000 in limited release), but it keeps making attendees faint. Fox Searchlight’s plans a 300-plus venue expansion by Thanksgiving.
 
2. Award voters don't look at B.O.
Last year, The Hurt Locker ($16.4 million) won Best Picture over worldwide blockbuster Avatar, and An Education ($12.6 million) took a nom in the category. A low-grosser's Oscar hopes rest on critics' circle and pre-Oscar awards kudos like the Golden Globes. Small films showing resilience this season--and likely to earn year-end critics' attention-- are Sony Classics’ Get Low ($9 million) and Roadside Attractions’ Winters Bone ($6.2 million).  Focus Features president Jack Foley explains that there used to be “a sense that the gross validated a film when it was nominated, and big box-office meant possible big awards. That's all changed. When the award contenders began to use video release dates to exploit their recognition for financial gain, a new dynamic arose where one could consider the entire year as qualification time. The Academy's decision to expand to ten has changed the award season game even more.”
 
3. Arthouse bombs sometimes regain awards momentum.
On paper, the $15-millionNever Let Me Go smelled like this year’s Atonement ($50.9 million), with its literary bestseller source material and lineup of hip U.K. talent: Andrew Garfield, Carey Mulligan and Keira Knightley. Fox Searchlight launched Never Let Me Go along with 127 Hours and Black Swan, at fall festivals, capturing the praise of big city critics.  But older audiences were turned off by the lugubrious pace and cloning theme in Never Let Me Go, shelling out just $2.3 million at the B.O., sending its award buzz down the tubes. Notably, the distrib held its two more robust awards contenders for November and December release, respectively. Never Let Me Go does star two Oscar-nominated actresses, Mulligan and Knightley, whose wattage translates into respect from voters. Last year, even though Nine was both a critical and box office failure at $19.7 million, with a boost from the Golden Globes, Harvey Weinstein managed to squeeze out four Oscar noms, including a best supporting nod for prior Oscar-winner Penelope Cruz. On the other hand, a Gotham Awards nod and stellar reviews for Let Me In are unlikely to give the vampire remake--which is an R-rated horror film-- awards traction.
 
4. Platform releases are here to stay
Despite the noise about shrinking ancillary windows, distribs believe that specialty releases can still show long legs at the box office, lasting in theaters as long as they did several years ago.  Examples abound, from respective 1987 best picture winner The Last Emperor to 2008's Slumdog Millionaire, which both played in theaters for 28 weeks. “We make our release plans as if those awards are frosting on the cake," says Sony Classics’ co-president Michael Barker. "In case there are awards, we make our distribution plans flexible.” Big B.O. breakouts are usually tied to distributors' lofty marketing spends. One label has mastered that approach: Fox Searchlight. Distribs have to decide whether to hang tough in theaters for weeks, even months, through to Oscar night, capitalizing on a win in theaters, or decide well in advance of a film’s opening to release the DVD before the big show.
 
5. November and December can be a dangerous release window.
Distributors with confidence about their films’ award chances always plot dates during this period. That's the reason why the Weinstein Co. is going out with the The King’s Speech on Nov. 24 and Fox Searchlight with Black Swan on Dec. 3. But it’s sink or swim time. If a film fails to find an audience, it will go the way of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly  ($6 million) or The Road ($8.1 million).  “It is truly a high-risk, high reward scenario,” says Foley. “If a film doesn't break out and generate momentum in November, it won't last through Christmas. However, when a film does work in November and can play into Christmas--the sky is the limit--and the reward in success is tremendous, as was the case with Milk ($31.8 million). Similarly, if a specialty film opens closer to Christmas and can really break through and find an audience--examples of success are films like Brokeback Mountain and Atonement--this can be a potentially rich play time for specialty films." 
 

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