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Box Office Report: What happened to the fabled 'Oscar bounce'?

The movie business is in the midst of a phenomenal roll, with the astounding box-office success of "Friday the 13th" helping propel Hollywood to its biggest three-day Presidents Day weekend of all time. But it was another lackluster weekend for the other movies that are supposed to be in the spotlight at this time of year--the Oscar best picture nominees. In fact, the whispers you hear everywhere around town are asking the same hushed question: What happened to the fabled Oscar bounce?

OscarThe Academy Awards' best picture nominees were announced Jan. 22, an event quickly commemorated by a blitzkrieg of expensive full-page ads in the trades, the New York Times and my newspaper, designed to use the cachet of a best picture nomination to nudge reluctant moviegoers into the theaters. But at the time when the rest of the movie business is booming, the best picture nominees--with the obvious exception of the crowd-pleasing "Slumdog Millionaire--are doing a slow fade. Only one of the five best picture nominees, "The Reader," has made more of its overall box-office take after it earned a best picture nod.

It's no surprise that "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" made the vast majority of its money before the Oscar nominations, since it was always viewed as a mainstream commercial picture, featuring a big Hollywood star, Brad Pitt, and an A-list director, David Fincher. Still, considering how much extra money Paramount has spent pushing "Button" for a best picture win, it's hard to determine whether the Oscars have made any real difference at all for the film, which grossed $104.3 million before the nominations, only $17.9 million after. Even though "Slumdog" has won virtually every major award known to man, it's still made more money ($44.7 million) pre-nominations than after ($41.8 million). Even "Milk," a film that seemed entirely dependent on a lift from the Oscars, actually had its biggest grossing weekend way back in early December, when it did $2.6 million, a weekend figure it hasn't equaled since.

Here's one perspective on how little the best picture nominations have meant this year. Even without a best picture nod, "Doubt" has outgrossed three of the five best picture nominees, while "Defiance" and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," which barely registered with Oscar voters--earning one major nomination between them--have outgrossed both "The Reader" and "Frost/Nixon." The latter film is the most striking commercial failure of the season. Losing more theaters each week, "Frost/Nixon" only made a paltry $473,000 this weekend, giving it a total of $16.3 million after 11 weeks in the market, nearly 60% of its overall grosses coming before the Oscar nominations were announced.

What's going on here?  Keep reading:

One big factor in the evaporation of the Oscar bounce has less to do with the Oscars and more to do with the commercial marketplace. January and early February used to be a dumping ground for mainstream movies, full of dregs and dreck that the studios wanted to dump into the theaters and get off their books. But in the first six weeks of this year, the theaters have been full of box-office dynamos. Most observers believe that moviegoing has been spurred by all the depressing economic news, but if so, moviegoers have clearly preferred escapist fare to Oscar pictures, which have found themselves on the margins, for the most part losing theaters every week to higher-performing pictures.

Even the upscale moviegoers who would've normally sought out "Frost/Nixon" or "Milk" have simply had too many other appealing movies to choose from. In fact, the box-office tsunami of January and early February has exposed the huge chasm between "Big Audience" films (horror, comedy and upbeat romances) and "Small Audience" films ("Frost/Nixon," "Milk" and "The Reader" all being essentially historical dramas of one sort or another). There is still a narrow niche of adults--mostly critics and movie lovers like me--who love challenging or evocative stories set during extraordinary periods of history. But in an age of economic tribulation, those films are clearly unable to provide the cozy escapism that today's audiences crave. Let's face it, there's nothing reassuring about films whose leading characters are murdered, kill themselves or slink away in disgrace.

"Slumdog" is really the only movie that you could convincingly argue has been aided by award season, though it's also benefited from Fox Searchlight's shrewd, brightly colored, cheerfully upbeat ad campaign. Every time it scooped up another armful of awards, it looked less like a forbidding movie set in the grim slums of a faraway country and more like an exotic confection that promises uplift and redemption. But it's a sign of how little the best picture nominations have meant this year that the movie that needed them perhaps the most of all--"Frost/Nixon"--simply got no bump at all.

Universal knew it had a challenge on its hands. Even though it earned largely favorable reviews, the film was essentially an obscure media fable, featuring two characters--Richard Nixon and David Frost--who are hardly beloved or even resonant names, one a disgraced former president, the other (for audiences under 40) a largely forgotten talk-show host. "Everyone knew going in that, even in the best-case scenario, this was going to be a substantial challenge," Universal marketing chief Adam Fogelson told me the other day. "Our hope was that if we could possibly do really well with the Golden Globes, the Oscars and BAFTA [the British film awards], that it would give us enough momentum to really reach a bigger audience. And of course, every one of those things happened--except for the momentum part."

"Frost/Nixon" started out with a bang, earning the biggest opening-weekend platform release of the year when it arrived in early December. But Universal was clearly discouraged by the film's second-weekend performance. "In those same original platform theaters, we saw drops that were north of 30 and 40%, which was far bigger than we had expected," says Fogelson. "What it told us was that the people who loved the film came out on opening weekend, but they weren't able to convince many of their friends to go see it. I think people were interested in the story, but they didn't feel the need to see it in a theater."

Fogelson says it's "entirely fair" for people to second-guess the studio's rollout strategy. "But I can't imagine anything that we did--going faster, wider, earlier, later--really making more than a 15 or 20% difference in the overall theatrical outcome," he says. "The film simply hasn't gotten any traction."

I still want to see movies like "Frost/Nixon" get made. But I think Hollywood needs to take a long look at its obsession with Oscardom, since it seems increasingly clear that the awards no longer deliver the guaranteed marketing bounce that smaller films need to find an audience. As I've said before, the Oscars have turned into a demolition derby. Burdened with the enormous costs of running an Oscar campaign, there are simply too many serious, adult-oriented films all being released at the same time of the year, only because of the intoxicating allure of a golden statuette.

It's time for filmmakers to grasp the new reality: The Oscars have become a hollow brass ring. They may be the ultimate status symbol to everyone inside the industry, but outside--in the real world, where Oscar ratings have been steadily dropping--the awards have less and less impact. In the 1970s, during the glory days of Hollywood, filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin, Hal Ashby, Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman were making movies because they were dying to tell great stories. I'm sure they were just as eager to win an Oscar as anyone, but it wasn't the initial spark that fueled their ambition. Their goal was to connect with an audience. And the best way to do that is to offer a spellbinding vision that captures our imagination, not relying on the Oscars, whose bounce these days is as ephemeral as the jolt you get from a double espresso and a jelly doughnut.

Photo of the Oscar statuette by Albert Watson / AMPAS

Comments () | Archives (22)

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Regularly overlooked in these discussions of the failure of "serious" films to find a theatrical audience is the "video factor." These films have a greater appeal to older audiences who are less likely to go to a theater when in three or four months they can see them at home, where most of them play just as well or better than on a big theater screen.

This actually goes back to the rise of television in the Fifties. The genre which has taken the greatest decline over the last 55 years has been serious adult drama without supposed big stars or presumed to break censorship taboos. The decline accelerated in the Seventies with the dominance of this genre in made for tv films. Any adult themed drama intended for theatrical release was soon dismissed as a tv movie unless it had big stars. And home video and the shortening of the window between theatrical and home video release gave people over 30 less encouragement to put up with the hassles, and increasing cost, of going to the theater.

As noted FROST/NIXON was a very iffy project and REVOLUTIONARY ROAD shouldn't have been made at all as a theatrical feature as there was really no audience for it; Leonardo di Caprio has even less appeal for older adults than for contemporary young people.

There's a probably apocryphal story that in the late Thirties veteran director William Beaudine was doing a six day blunder for Monogram and when he fell an hour behind schedule an executive rushed to the set and told him he had to finish on Saturday because the film was booked to open in a month. Beaudine is supposed to have looked at him incredulously and said "You mean someone's waiting to see this?" In those days even Monogram could could enough bookings on anything it made to at least break even. Today very serious consideration needs to be made, beyond the complaints and advice of critics and columnists among other dubious sources of advice, as to whether there is an audience or whether one can be created for a theatrical film, especially an expensive one.

Rick Mitchell
Film Editor/Film Historian

Bootleg copies. That's the answer.

Thanks to the generosity of the studios for sending DVD's of the movies to Academy members, the Bootleg quality is magnificent. (Not that I have seen any. I've heard on the grapevine).

As soon as the Academy nominations were announced, the public purchased bootleg copies of the nominated movies. They were all available.

So there was a bounce in sales... bootleg sales.

Rick Mitchell is correct. Unless REVOLUTIONARY ROAD had been made for a price, and handled very, very carefully in its theatrical release, with buzz and word-of-mouth extensively built, it probably should not have been produced as a feature. The majority of the audience that might have been interested in seeing this film has now been conditioned to wait to see it on video or even to wait for it turn up on cable. The day I heard the term "theatrical window" begin to be tossed around, I knew that an effort was afoot to destroy what was left of America's moviegoing habit. With certain exceptions, this has just about happened. This saddens me greatly.

Particularly with younger audiences, social networking now is much more influential than award nominations. If a movie is appealing (for entertainment or artistic merit), word spreads quickly by texting, Facebook, Myspace, etc. This is helping the box office for films that have buzz.

By the time the Oscar nominations arrive, word has already spread regarding a film's appeal, and may be difficult to reverse the course...

One factor that was mentioned in passing is actually the key to a large part of the problem: in late December, there is suddenly this glut of (Oscar, adult, serious, whatever term you want to use) movies pushed into theaters. So at any one time, these movies were all playing:
Slumdog Millionaire
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Reader
Revolutionary Road
The Wrestler
Gran Torino

Now, add up the price and time it takes to see all of these and you'll get the number one factor why so many did average or below average business. Obviously, studios aren't going to release these films in the summer, but staggering them throughout November and December would at least allow breathing room, whereas giving the public a two week span in late December/early January in which to catch them leaves most out in the cold.

Another idea is to release a picture in the spring (a la Crash) so that it is out on DVD by the time award season rolls around. Then studios capture the theatrical audience as well as those who wait to watch at home, and the public feels more in-tune with the films being discussed.

I am at the bottom of the food chain when it comes to movie making and I have found that 'A' list producers are still more interested in making big budget movies with big stars that are full of industry prestige than making films that have a real chance of making a profit. For example, I have 50% of the budget in place for a movie with a total budget of $1M. Finding the balance of that budget from within the industry is nigh on impossible because the industry works on paying itself big fees rather than profit participation. Much like the banks, the film industry has been able to disguise its true lack of profit behind 'A' list producers, actors and directors and tax-driven investment but now that finance is drying up perhaps a film that is made for $1M and returns to its investors $1.2M will be considered a success. As for Oscars, were Clint Eastwood movies more successful before he started making Oscar-worthy films or since? I've seen 'Unforgiven' once and 'The Outlaw Josey Wales' more than ten times.

Is it so surprising the Oscar is subject to inflation? It might have something to do with giving it away to the most convenient, not to the best. I call it The Curse of the Oscar. Do you really believe Friday the 13th part 14 is such a huge hit? Your bankers and politicians have taught you well in keeping up appearances. For the record: Oscars were never meant to bounce. It's exemplary for your mis-analysis to take on such an incorrect indicator.

The problem as I see it is is "serious movies" simply aren't very entertaining anymore. The industry has basically devolved into two extreme meta-genres: popcorn flicks that are fun but totally lack substance, and "Oscar bait" films that feign seriousness but are ultimately too pretentious and esoteric for their own good. Throw in the internet, which allows people to find out if the movie's actually any good or not before going to see it, and we have a recipe for irrelevant awards shows.

Personally I think it's a good thing. Once upon a time, up through the 80s or so movies were designed to tell a good story and be entertaining. But over the last couple of decades Hollywood has focused increasingly on issues that are pleasing to Hollywood but nobody else really cares about. Seriously, if Joe Sixpack is gonna watch something what do you think he'll pick: dead politicians (gay or otherwise), revisionist Nazis or Batman? Now I'm not saying we should give Michael Bay a stable of little gold men, but maybe the death of the Oscar bounce will get the studios to realize that pushing arthouse fare on a general audience is a waste of both time and money.

Regarding "bootleg copies" it is worth noticing how one of the champs of the season, the action-thriller "Taken" is, in some countries, already out on DVD since forever, and, reportedly, easily available as a bootleg copy. Still, "Taken" is one of the better performing movies of the season.

My opinion is that today, in the era of the Internet, people are able to look for info about a certain movie, and then decide if it is a movie for them or not. Once upon a time an "Oscar nomination" was an hint that an overlooked movie could actually be interesting. Today the average moviegoer probably already knows enough about a movie to decide if it interests him or not.

Also, I agree that the success at the cineplex should not be the only stick used to judge the overall success of a movie. I often read how movies that did so-so during their theatrical run become stellar successes once the DVDs hit the stands - and I wonder more and more why this kind of achievement is seldom included in the overall evaluation of how a movie actually "did" and the end of the day.

Maybe the real reason that movies like Frost/Nixon, and Revolutionary Road haven't done better is that they're not all that good. Did you ever consider that?

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