Oscar's big fish are guppies at box office

Thu Feb 14, 2008 10:16pm EST

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - The restoration of the Oscars after months of strike uncertainty has delighted those who revel in the fashion and foibles of the annual glitzfest. But the actual nominees might evoke a lot less pleasure for those who count studio dollars.

With combined domestic ticket sales of $295 million, the five best picture nominees are on pace to tally the second-lowest total for that group in two decades. More tellingly, they will form the smallest percentage of overall box office for the year -- a measly 3% -- in the modern era (and would be a lot lower if not for the unlikely low-budget "Juno," which is approaching $120 million in domestic box office sales).

This awards season also will mark the third straight year that box office for the best picture contenders has hovered just at or below $300 million. Before 2005, it hadn't happened in any year since 1986, and a movie ticket cost a lot less back then.

The poor box office performance of Oscar movies isn't new to anyone who tracks receipts: Movies traded in dark themes this awards season, audiences didn't see them, you know the rest.

But taken in a historical context, the data are more pointed. The gap between box office and Oscar nominees is steadily widening. And increasingly, it looks not like a cyclical lull but a trend that's going to stick around for a while. (With much of a contemporary movie's revenue coming from DVD and international, it's worth keeping in mind that domestic box office is just one gauge of a movie's financial performance, if usually a pretty effective one.)

The question, debated by a number of studio executives and award experts interviewed this week, is: Why is this happening -- and who loses when it does?

First off, and most obviously, studios have exited the awards game. They're making fewer movies that typically interest the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, instead shuffling them to specialty divisions. What began as a move only by Disney several years ago to emphasize established franchises over traditional development is now catching on across the board (and is a phenomenon several agents said could accelerate as studios evaluate their post-strike development approach).

But many of those interviewed also laid the responsibility on a more complex set of factors that takes into account the Academy's mind-set and the subtle signals that pass between studios and voters.

Some of the most lucrative studio movies of the last year -- a performance-driven thriller like "American Gangster" (No. 18 on the list of overall box office in 2007) or a splashy musical like "Hairspray" (No. 23) might have attracted voters in past years. This year, they overlooked them, and some wondered whether voters might be subconsciously neglecting studio movies because their release label telegraphs them as something other than an "awards film."

The creation of the specialty divisions, in other words, might be having an unintended effect.

"Call 'Gangster' a Focus movie and even spend a little less money making and releasing it, and I have a funny feeling it would be up for best picture," one executive said. (Focus Features is the specialty sibling of Universal Pictures, which released "American Gangster" in North America.)

It's impossible to discount audience habits. Although it's hard to know how these same best picture contenders would have performed in another climate, some make the case that audiences are simply turning off from awards movies. Focus' "Atonement," which has been compared to "The English Patient" in subject matter and reputation, earned $45.2 million, barely half of what the Anthony Minghella film earned in 1996. At $46.1 million, a star vehicle like Warner Bros.' "Michael Clayton" has performed respectably but hasn't captivated the moviegoing public.

The question is whether this trend, already digging in its claws, will hang around. Awards box office tends to hover in one zone for a few years, with a "Lord of the Rings" or a "Titanic" causing unusual spikes. But historically they haven't fluctuated as much as you might expect. Between 1989 and 1995, for example, box office for the five best picture nominees ranged between $350 million and $500 million.

Which makes the past few years notable and hints at a more fundamental shift in which most awards movies make less than $50 million, if not a lot less.

"What I think we have, and will continue to have, is a great chasm between studio summer films and awards films," said Media by Numbers' Paul Dergarabedian. "We're going to continue to see five best picture nominees become less of a factor at the box office."

The question then becomes who the trend most impacts.

Some executives played down its effects. "What we're seeing is little more than a different division of labor -- Viacom and NBC Universal are still getting their money, it's just flowing through Vantage and Focus instead of Paramount and Universal," a high-ranking studio executive said.

It's an appealing idea, but the math doesn't always work.

On paper, the economics should still make sense. Bigger-budgeted movies need to make more money, but smaller movies (most of the nominees have budgets of less than $50 million, and in some cases much lower) can afford to make less.

But at the same time as box office has gone down, Oscar campaign specialists note no corresponding drop in awards budgets -- which means spending on awards has stayed high even as the windfall for winning an award has gone way down.

"There's so much money spent chasing awards -- too much money, I think," said a specialty division exec whose company often finds itself in the heat of awards season. "I wonder what it would be like if the studios spent what they did for some of their bigger movies. They wouldn't have to spend that much more, and they'd get a much bigger bang from it."

And there are others impacted by the trend besides the studios. The awards-industrial complex, after all, isn't based on the trophies themselves but on the popularity of the movies and their stars.

"The real loser in all this is the network that's broadcasting the Oscars," one awards watcher said. Indeed, the ratings information shows that blockbusters have been crucial. In 2003 and '04, when box office for best picture nominees averages nearly $600 million, the telecast averaged nearly 42 million viewers. The past two years the telecasts averaged 39 million viewers.

Whatever the long-term effects, it's not clear that box office and voters are entirely divorced yet. So far this decade, the best picture prize has gone to one of the top two grossers among the five best picture nominees. That's good news for "Juno" and the $58 million-earning "No Country for Old Men" -- or what passes for good news in this box office climate.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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