Oscars have been handed out, but award season still isn’t over at the box office. A best picture win can translate into an extra 20% bump after Oscar night, while an actress or actor trophy can trigger an extra 30-50% in a film’s domestic cume. Fox Searchlight’sBlack Swanwill expand Friday from its current 617 locales to 681. At $103.83 million, the film recently inched out The Chronicles of Narnia 3($103.81 million) to become Fox’s highest-grossing 2010 domestic release. Meanwhile the Weinstein Co. is plotting to unspool its PG-13 take on King’s Speech at some point down the road, but will continue to play out its R-rated reel currently at 2,386 sites.
No matter what version of King’s Speech audiences attend --with or without the ‘F’ words-- Weinstein Co. president David Glasser insists that there’s are still crowds who haven’t seen the period piece, despite its 93% domestic B.O. boost between noms and Oscar Night.
“When a film such as ours takes home multiple wins it piques enough interest for the quadrant who still hasn’t seen the film,” says Glasser, “in addition there’s also a combination of repeat viewers.”
With the $100-million crossover success of "specialty" films Black Swan, The King’s Speech and True Grit, this year’s Oscar season shows that the old-fashioned platform rollout can still prevail in the digital distribution age. While the awards race helped to boost the adult quality film revival, this does not necessarily mean that moviegoers are craving specialty fare. It does remind us that old-fashioned word-of-mouth can sell strong movies over the long haul. Time will tell if this season marks a happy accident at the box office.
Back in early 2005, big-spender Universal, which had blanketed the trades three seasons before with A Beautiful Mind ads, curtailed their award season spend on Oscar nominee Ray. Their pullback stemmed from the film’s February DVD shelf date. At the time, an Oscar season home video strategy wasn’t uncommon, particularly for early-year releases such as 1991’s Silence of the Lambs and 2000’s Gladiator. However, the release of Ray on DVD pointed toward a more daunting trend: video was killing the Oscar star.
It appeared that the days for a platform theatrical release were over: American Beauty played in theaters from September 1999 to June 2000. Multiplex expansions were costly and it seemed more economical for a studio to reap money and cut ad costs by making a presence at Walmart and Target. This business formula became the precedent in subsequent years as many fall best picture noms, from Babel and The Departed to Michael Clayton and A Serious Man, made their way into homes by Oscar night.
Now with video revenues on the wane, long theatrical runs on quality hits are making a comeback. But as one specialty distribution head has said: “You can’t make a specialized movie a hit – they just happen.”
He’s right. A confluence of high quality films, released simultaneously, happened to boast mass appeal. The fact that they platformed and went wide at different intervals -- Black Swan in December, King’s Speech in January – also assisted in spurring business for each other, especially when distributors piggy-back trailers. Meanwhile Sony kept Social Network away from the fray, gladly relishing a 2% spike in its domestic B.O. and a DVD revenue surge from $11.6 million to $17.6 million or 52% following the noms (per TheNumbers.com).
It helped that other offbeat niche fare this season, from Sofia Coppola’s December release Somewhere ($1.8 million) to Edward Zwick’s Love & Other Drugs ($32.4 million), failed to ignite. Otherwise there wouldn’t have been any fireworks at the B.O.
ALso, the Academy scheduled the Oscars sooner than usual, greasing the wheels for good product. While that might sway the studios to release more films theatrically than on DVD, it doesn’t mean that a niche film will break out.
2008’s best picture noms are a perfect case study: look at Slumdog Millionaire ($141.3 million), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button ($127.5 million),The Reader ($34.2 million), Milk ($31.8 million) and Frost Nixon ($18.6 million). Similar to this year, the Oscars were held in late February. While all of the noms were quality films, only two spoke to the crowd: Button had Forrest Gump appeal and Slumdog, an epic underdog romance.
The other three didn’t jive, due to subject matter, tone or rhythm. On the other hand, 1996 was proclaimed the "Year of the Independents" at the Oscars with only one crowd pleaser, Sony’s Jerry Maguire ($154 million) in the best picture category, which held its own against four arthouse titles: The English Patient ($78.7 million), Shine ($35.9 million), Fargo ($24.6 million), and Secrets & Lies ($13.4 million). Who is to say that a 1996 or 2008 award season couldn’t occur again at the box office? It just depends on what’s clicking with crowds.
Other distribution heads cite the lackluster performance of 2011 wide releases as another factor that enabled exhibitors to hold Oscar product. No doubt that helped, but if you look back at January’s top grossing films of all-time, award season titles have always populated the rankings: A Beautiful Mind ($170.7 million), Chicago ($170.7 million) and Good Will Hunting ($138.4 million).
Weinstein Co.'s Glasser says that one of the outcomes the industry can expect from this season’s success: studios and distributors “will continue to take chances on interesting films. Many of this year’s nominees were made because people took a risk. As long as there is healthy money and companies like the Weinstein Co. reading scripts, there will be a flurry of good product.”