Why can't the Oscars get Americans to see dramas?
Even more than they love than ice cream and puppies, people love an Oscar bounce. The bounce -- that phenomenon in which the very fact of a nomination gets audiences buying tickets -- is loved by studios because it validates all the money they spent trying to get a nomination. The Oscars love the bounce, because it validates the event's importance as more than just a bunch of people in penguin suits handing trophies to each other. And audiences, well, OK, audiences don't necessarily care about them. But they are affected by them.
The past few years have brought a fair share of Oscar bounces, as films like "Juno," Million Dollar Baby" and "Chicago" earned $80 million or more after their nominations. Last year brought one of the superballs of Oscar bounces, "Slumdog Millionaire," which earned $97 million after the nominations were announced, a number that constituted more than two-thirds of its domestic total.
But this year has brought nothing on this order; indeed, there have been deflated basketballs with more bounce than awards movies. Blockbusters like "Avatar" didn't need (or get) one. The dark dramas needed one, but couldn't come up with the goods "An Education" and "Precious" barely could scrounge up more than $1 million or $2 million after they landed on the shortlists Feb. 2. Other films, like "The Hurt Locker" and "A Serious Man," didn't even try; they'd left theaters by the time nominations were announced and hoped to reap whatever benefit they could on DVD.
There's one notable exception in "Crazy Heart." Scott Cooper's country-ditty of a film wasn't even supposed to come out this year -- Fox Searchlight moved it up from the spring when it realized it would lose Jeff Bridges and his promotional efforts to the set of "True Grit." And yet the movie's earned nearly $20 million of its $25-million total since the nominations came out. The film's still going strong, widening this weekend to 1300 theaters three months after it was first released.Part of this success has to do with the distribution savvy of Fox Searchlight, which is behind some of the bigger bounces of the past few years (including "Juno" and "Slumdog"). The company understands the map of the United States like an FBI on a manhunt, pinpointing exactly which areas to zoom in on, and when. ("Crazy Heart" has also helped offset the struggles the company had with two films earlier in the fall, "Amelia" and "Whip It").
But at least some of the "Crazy Heart" performance is due to a more specific reason -- older Americans. The company has seen spikes in places with older populations like performance in cities in Florida. Even though the R-rated movie concentrates on a washed-up alcoholic who's near made a mess of his life, there's something about the pacing of the film, the story of redemption and Bridges himself that's resonating with he AARP set -- confounding the expectations of Searchlight itself.
“Bridges is sort of an antihero in the movie, and he’s smoking and drinking, so we weren’t sure how it would play with audiences over [the ages of] 50 or 60,” Fox Searchlight president Stephen Gilula says. "But there’s so much good will for Bridges and his filmography. This is an actor who has been working for four decades. I think a lot of older people want to see his achievement in this film.”
As for the other movies, box office experts have given plenty of reasons why the pictures failed -- the movies opened too soon, the field was too crowded, audiences found too many quality blockbusters. But it's an odd trend. For years we heard that people were paying less attention to he Oscars and its movies because the field didn't feature the crowd pleasers. Now that it does, we're told, people aren't paying attention to some of the more upscale awards movies because they're distracted by the blockbusters. A rising tide, apparently, provides no bounce.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photos (top). Mo'Nique in "Precious." Credit: Lionsgate. Jeff Bridges in "Crazy Heart." Credit: Lorey Sebastian/Fox Searchlight