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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Box Office Report: What happened to the fabled 'Oscar bounce'?

February 16, 2009 | 11:53 am

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

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