- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
When Reinaldo Marcus Green’s King Richard debuted at the Telluride Film Festival in early September, it was hailed as a major Oscar contender, with pundits proclaiming Will Smith the best actor frontrunner for his portrayal of Richard Williams, the hard-charging father of tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams. But when the uplifting Warner Bros. drama finally arrived in movie theaters Nov. 19, it suddenly hit a speed bump. Booked into 3,032 theaters, it grossed just $5.4 million for the weekend, an unimpressive fourth-place showing.
While that was hardly enough to derail King Richard‘s Oscar prospects, some handicappers began to apply the brakes. Nate Jones, who writes Vulture.com’s Oscar Futures column, had originally given the movie’s best picture odds an up arrow, then reduced them to even, noting, “It’s not ideal for a purported crowd-pleaser when those crowds do not show up.”
Of course, box office alone isn’t a deciding factor in determining Oscar viability, especially as moviegoing begins to revive in the wake of 2020’s COVID-19 shutdowns.
In pre-pandemic times, there was a handy rule of thumb: Buoyant box office returns don’t automatically translate into lots of Academy Awards nominations — let alone wins. The last best picture winner to top $100 million at the domestic box office was 2012’s Argo, which collected $136 million in North America.
On the other hand, a disappointing box office performance can take some of the sheen off an awards hopeful, especially if reviews are mixed. In recent years, films like Alexander Payne’s 2017 Downsizing, Robert Zemeckis’ 2018 Welcome to Marwen and Clint Eastwood’s 2019 Richard Jewell, all of which were initially on pundits’ lists of potential Oscar candidates, mostly based on the past track records of the filmmakers involved, fell out of serious contention when they opened to middling results.
But this year, the calculus is more complicated. For King Richard wasn’t a pure theatrical release, and its consequent box office doesn’t tell the whole story. As part of Warners’ day-and-date strategy to lure new subscribers to HBO Max, it became available on the streaming service at the same time that it appeared in theaters. And according to analytics outfit Samba TV, 707,000 U.S. households watched the film over its first weekend; the majority of them weren’t just two-minute samplers but watched the movie all the way through. (Just for the sake of argument, if two members from each of those households had bought tickets at an average price of $9.37, the movie would have raked in an additional $13.2 million and King Richard could boast of a more winning box office trajectory.)
When it comes to more specialized films, where traditionally commercial success has been even less important in building an awards-friendly résumé, the tea leaves are just as difficult to read this year. Titles from specialty distributors like Searchlight and Focus may not be getting simultaneous releases on a streamer, but given that the 2021 box office has yet to fully recover, they have been given somewhat accelerated release patterns. Instead of slow platform releases, building from a few theaters to dozens to hundreds before going into wide release, such films are being ushered into theaters more quickly.
Consider the case of a more specialized film, like Searchlight’s The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson’s latest bit of cinematic whimsy. The director’s previous theatrical feature, 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, opened in just four theaters and didn’t move up to 1,200-plus theaters until its fifth weekend — by the end of its sixth weekend, it had grossed $39.5 million and would ultimately go on to pull in $59 million domestically. Dispatch has been treated to a much faster rollout — it hit 1,200 theaters by its third weekend, but at the end of its sixth weekend, it had collected just $14.5 million. While this is no doubt at least in part due to a soft box office environment, with older moviegoers still hesitating to return to theaters, there may be a temptation to read into the gross a weakness on the part of the film itself. Movies like Dispatch and Neon’s Spencer risk losing some of their luster when box office attention isn’t paid.
Certainly, movies that do strike a chord at the box office can trumpet that fact. Disney’s Encanto, which led the five-day Thanksgiving weekend with $40.6 million, is enjoying visibility that other best animated film contenders like Pixar’s Luca (which went straight to Disney+) and The Mitchells vs. the Machines (which Sony sold to Netflix) missed out on earlier this year when they bypassed theaters.
But while the Academy itself may pay lip service to the importance of the theatrical experience, that’s not how lots of viewers — and Oscar voters — will see a movie like King Richard, not to mention all the titles, from The Power of the Dog to Being the Ricardos, that will receive only token theatrical releases from Netflix and Amazon before they’re offered to the streamers’ subscribers. As far as Academy consideration is concerned, box office is becoming increasingly irrelevant.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day
Behind The Screen