The best picture slump: Is Hollywood stuck in an Oscar bubble?
This year’s box office is booming, except, gulp, for Oscar movies. The 2012 grosses have been surprisingly strong, up nearly 18% year to date compared with 2011. But if you think any of that is thanks to people rushing out to see the best picture contenders ahead of Sunday’s Academy Awards show, think again.
Just look at this past weekend’s box office, which featured five films taking in more than $20 million in U.S. ticket sales over the four-day Presidents Day period. None were Oscar films. In fact, the best performer of this year’s nine best picture nominees, the George Clooney-starring “The Descendants,” finished in 11th place, with an estimated $3.5-million take.
“The Artist,” the prohibitive favorite to win the Oscar for best picture, finished 13th. It took in about $3 million — up 8% from the previous weekend, but it still hasn’t made deep inroads outside of the country’s most cosmopolitan urban markets. In 13 weeks of release, “The Artist” has grossed only $28 million, not bad for a black-and-white nearly silent film but less than what “Safe House” made this past weekend alone.
In years past, Hollywood insiders have cited a post-nomination “Oscar bounce” at the box office as justification for the millions of dollars it spends on Oscar ads. And Hollywood is still in full-on Oscar campaign mode. Clooney has not only showed up for screenings and filmmaker Q&As, but God help him, taken “CBS This Morning’s” Charlie Rose and Lara Logan on a tour of his home, patiently answering every eye-rolling question, including one from Logan, who actually asked, “What’s inside your fridge, George?”
But when you look at the cold hard numbers, the bounce looks more and more like myth than reality.
With the help of Hollywood.com box office swami Paul Dergarabedian, I charted the combined weekend box office grosses for this year’s nine best picture candidates. Though their total box office did indeed rise slightly the weekend after the nominations were announced, it was hardly the highest-grossing weekend for the combined candidates. In fact, if you wanted to win a trivia contest, just ask someone to name the biggest box office weekend for the best picture nominees.
The unlikely answer? The weekend of Aug. 12, when three future best picture nominees, largely propelled by the opening weekend grosses from “The Help,” made a combined $26.7 million. The second biggest weekend was in late September, when the grosses from “Moneyball,” “The Help,” “Midnight in Paris” and “Tree of Life” totaled $23.8 million. The weekend after the Oscar nominations were announced Jan. 24 was only the fourth-largest weekend for best picture nominees, also trailing New Year’s Eve weekend, when the combined best picture nominees made $21.9 million.
Last year, the best week for best picture nominees was also New Year’s weekend, when the best picture nominated films did roughly 70% more business than they did the weekend after the Oscar nominations.
In fact, it’s hard to make a strong case that many of the nominated films were helped in any significant way by the Oscar nominations. Even “The Descendants,” which has continued to have a strong showing at the box office, had its biggest grossing weekend at Thanksgiving, not after the nominations were announced. The only films you can argue that have really benefited from Oscar-related box office are “The Artist” and “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” though both films have spent a healthy chunk of their box office gains in nonstop Oscar advertising.
Sure, some folks are taking in these movies at home, via video-on-demand or Netflix. Four of the best picture nominees — “The Help,” “Midnight in Paris” “Moneyball” and “The Tree of Life” — are available to watch at home. But studios say they’re not seeing much revenue even on that end.
Studio marketers are rarely in sync on many issues, but they are in unanimous agreement that they are getting less and less bang for their Oscar buck with each passing year.
“We don’t even see a big bump anymore when a best picture winner hits home video,” said one leading studio marketer. “The Oscars are about ego and recognition. The spending just doesn’t stand up to any rational analysis. The culture has changed. The era when an elite institutional award could have a lot of sway with the public is pretty much at an end.”
It’s no secret that the academy has been considering the idea of moving Oscars up into late January, as early as the weekend before the Super Bowl. It’s an idea whose time has come, especially since it would push the nominations closer to Christmas and New Year’s weekend, traditionally the biggest moneymaking weekends for most Oscar films.
That would concentrate public attention on the top films but condense the endless campaign season, which now stretches from the early September film festivals to the end of February.
The Oscar nominations have also lost much of their clout because the public decides what it thinks about a movie much earlier than it ever did in the past. Most of this year’s films got little in the way of a bump because moviegoers had access to so much Oscar hype so early in the process that by the time the nominations arrived, they’d either seen the film or checked it off their to-do list.
Older audiences may not be tweeting their friends on Friday night after seeing “Hugo” or “War Horse,” but there is so much chattering-class buzz about the Oscars these days that anyone who wants to feel in the know about the top movies is almost obligated to have an opinion by the time their friends show up for holiday get-togethers. When I had friends over for New Year’s Eve, the kitchen was full of moviegoers who had already decided — three weeks before it landed 10 Oscar nominations — that “The Artist” was hugely overrated.
It’s great to have buzz, but with the Oscars, it looks like all that anticipation can be a real buzz kill.
Photo: The cast of "The Artist" at the Golden Globe Awards. From left: Missi Pyle, Uggie the dog, Jean Dujardin, Michael Hazanavicius and Berenice Bejo. Credit: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times