Box Office: Why Oscar Needs 'La La Land' to Keep Singing

Why It Took 31 Tries to Get the La La Land Theme Song Just Right -Publicity- H 2016
Courtesy of Dale Robinette/LIONSGATE

The musical, starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, hopes to bust out of the art house after opening to record numbers in Los Angeles and New York.

Damien Chazelle's prestige feel-good musical La La Land's record-breaking opening in New York and Los Angeles is promising news for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which could use a popular hit in the awards mix after seeing viewership interest in the Oscars erode dramatically.

Should La La Land, starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, enjoy the same success when expanding nationwide, it could aid this year's Jimmy Kimmel-hosted telecast on Feb. 26. While Oscar nominations won't be announced until Jan. 24, La La Land is widely expected to be among the leading best picture contenders — it landed a spot on the AFI's top 10 list and was named best picture by the New York Film Critics Circle.

"If this film breaks out at the box office, as expected, it will certainly help to have a 'feel-good movie' in the running for the top awards," says box-office analyst Jeff Bock.

Lionsgate says it is premature to discuss La La Land's place in the Oscar race. By Christmas Day, the musical will be playing in top markets across the country. "When you look at everything in the marketplace, you can see that what sets La La Land apart is that it is pure entertainment," said Lionsgate distribution chief David Spitz.

La La Land' will be in awards contention with other critical favorites like Moonlight, which took the Los Angeles critics' top prize, and Manchester by the Sea, which topped the National Board of Review list. Both films have attracted impressive audiences in limited release, although as demanding dramas they face a tougher challenge as they expand into more theaters. So far, A24's Moonlight has fared better than expected for an art house title, grossing $10 million through Sunday. And Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions' Manchester by the Sea is prospering, earning $8.3 million so far. CBS Films' Hell or High Water is the most successful limited release of 2016 to date with more than $25 million in ticket sales.

Earlier this year, the 2016 Oscar telecast ranked as the third-lowest rated on record, hitting a seven-year low with 34.3 million viewers despite host Chris Rock and the coverage of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. The least-watched Oscars on record is still the 2008 ceremony, when the best picture nominees were No Country for Old Men (winner), Atonement, Juno, Michael Clayton and There Will be Blood, many of them indie titles that weren't huge players at the box office.

"There is virtually a one-to-one correlation between a Oscar nominee's box office and the telecast's ratings. If the potential viewer has not seen most of the major contenders, the desire to watch the Oscars goes down," says comScore's Paul Dergarabedian. "Conversely, if the audience has a vested interest in an odds-on favorite, then they want to root for their favorite film and will tune in."

In the summer of 2009, a concerned Academy announced it was expanding its best-picture category to as many as 10 pictures in the hopes of including more commercial fare from the major Hollywood studios. Ratings improved markedly, with 41.6 million viewers tuning into the March 7, 2010, show, where Avatar, Up, The Blind Side and District 9 competed alongside more usual suspects like An Education, A Serious Man and The Hurt Locker — which pulled off perhaps the biggest best picture upset in Oscar history by defeating Avatar, which remains the top-grossing film of all time with $2.8 billion in global ticket sales. (Hurt Locker earned $49 million, much of it after winning the Oscar.)

Viewership tumbled again in 2011 as prestige fare once again dominated — including feel-good winner The King's Speech — but ratings popped in February 2014 when Ellen DeGeneres hosted the show (43.7 million viewers), when movies vying for top honors included commercial box-office offerings Gravity, Captain Phillips and The Wolf of Wall Street, although it was 12 Years a Slave that ultimately won.

This year, there are a couple of major studio releases that appear to be in play as potential awards contenders, such as Warner Bros.' Sully, which has earned $218.7 million to date worldwide, and Arrival, which has grossed nearly $130 million for Paramount and FilmNation. But their grosses don't compare to the numbers posted last season by eventual best picture nominees like The Martian and Mad Max: Fury Road.

One potential wild card is Disney Animation's Zootopia. With a worldwide gross of $1.024 billion, it currently is the third-top-grossing film of the year, and it has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 98 percent. If it were to secure a best picture nomination, ABC would have a genuine blockbuster to promote as part of its Oscar push. But a nomination is not guaranteed, since only three animated movies — Beauty and the Beast, Up and Toy Story 3 — have ever been nominated for best picture (although Zootopia did get a boost by being included on the recent AFI top 10 list).