How Much Is an Oscar Actually Worth?

Oscar Statue Coin Feed_Illo - THR - H 2020
Illustration by: Maria Corte

As campaign spending soars in a shorter awards season, an analysis of who actually benefits financially from a win, writes executive editor Stephen Galloway.

When the red carpet has been rolled away and the champagne has lost its fizz, does an Oscar justify its cost? The answer, more than ever, is probably yes, but not in the way Oscar's added value has traditionally been measured.

Let's look at the domestic box office first. "The Oscar effect is different at the box office than it was back in the day," says Comscore analyst Paul Dergarabedian. "Before 2000, winning best picture could get you past $100 million domestically. That's not true anymore."

No best picture winner has earned more than $100 million domestically since 2012's Argo (which grossed $136 million); even then, only 4.7 percent of its revenue came after the Oscars.

The post-nominations bounce, which usually fuels revenue more than a victory, has also somewhat faded. True, last year's laureate, Green Book, earned $42.6 million after the Oscar nominations (doubling its North American earnings), and the previous year The Shape of Water took in an additional $33.4 million. But the average post-noms boost over the past decade has been less than half as much — pocket money for the majors.

Contrast that with 1999's American Beauty, which earned $55 million post-noms, or 1998's Shakespeare in Love, which earned an extra $63 million.

"This year, with such a tight window between nominations and the awards, theatrical benefits will be limited," says Stephen Gilula, chairman of Fox Searchlight Pictures, which has Jojo Rabbit in contention.

International box office is another thing. While staggered release dates make an absolute assessment difficult, much of Shape of Water's $131 million foreign haul came after its Oscar victory; and nobody expected Green Book to take in $237 million overseas (almost three times its domestic gross) until it won best picture.

The individuals behind these films will also benefit financially, though not as much as you might think. While Oscar can lift some actors to stardom (Octavia Spencer, Lupita Nyong'o), the immediate rewards are limited. Many A-listers (actors, directors and some writers) receive a bonus if they're nominated or win. But one insider says the most he's seen is $100,000 for a nomination and $250,000 for a win.

Top stars such as Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio also get bumps if their movie (in this case, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) is named best picture: Each would earn around $250,000. But on the whole, says a top lawyer, "those bonuses tend to be modest — maybe $50,000 for a nomination and $100,000 for a win — and that's usually an advance against profit participation."

This is minor compared with their share of the gross. "If I'm negotiating a deal," says WME partner Robert Newman, "I'm going to be much more focused on the profit participation than this."

Some stars, like Halle Berry, have actually experienced a negative effect: The Monster's Ball winner once got $10 million a picture, but that plunged to $2 million after 2004's Catwoman.

This is the end result of campaigns that can cost anywhere from $5 million to $25 million per picture, according to two awards strategists. Last year, Netflix spent $50 million to $60 million on Roma, estimates one. "Think about it: $5 million doesn't go that far," says another campaigner, citing screeners, screenings and advertising as the three major costs, along with travel. That includes roughly $10 for each DVD sent to voters.

So who gains from all this? The strategists themselves, though their bonuses are often only in the mid-five figures. And the studios that hire them, with a boost in TV and home entertainment sales, as well as added library value and clout with talent. That said, multiple financiers per picture mean studios reap less than before.

"In the case of Green Book," says one executive, "Universal owned hardly any foreign rights, meaning the company that paid for the campaign barely profited from it, even if Participant Media did."

The real value of Oscar today lies with the streamers. If Toy Story 4 gets its expected nomination for best animated feature, that will drive viewers to Disney+. And if The Irishman or Marriage Story wins big for Netflix, that will likely add new subscribers.

While Netflix has never released viewing figures for Roma (which earned three Oscars), its marketing campaign moved in lockstep with its awards push to make the movie one of the most talked-about of the year.

"This isn't just about subscribers," says the lawyer. "It's about legitimacy: being seen in the same league as a Universal or Disney." It's also about hard cash. The day after the Oscar ceremony in which Roma won three statuettes, Netflix saw its stock rise 1.5 percent to $371.49. True, the gain faded within hours, but it remained a hugely more valuable company than it had been before.

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By the Numbers

1.5 percent - Netflix stock gain at high point after 2019 Oscars

$250K - Top-level bonus for winning best actor

$63M - Shakespeare in Love’s 1999 post-noms domestic box office bump 

This story first appeared in the Jan. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.