Oscars and Box Office: This Is the Lowest-Grossing Year in the Modern Era

The imitation game Still 5 - H 2015
Courtesy of The Weinstein Company

The imitation game Still 5 - H 2015

Even with 'American Sniper,' 2015's best pic nominees are on pace to be the weakest financial crop since the category expanded beyond five nominees in 2009, as the Academy’s taste becomes increasingly at odds with that of the public (and possibly imperils show ratings).

This story first appeared in the Feb. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When the Academy expanded its best picture category from five films to as many as 10 in 2009, the goal was to counter the trend toward smaller movies grabbing the Oscar spotlight and to bring in some higher-grossing studio films so the public would have more of a rooting interest in the annual awards show. At first, it worked, with the 2010 crop generating a whopping $4.7 billion worldwide (Avatar's $2.7 billion helped). But with few exceptions, it's been a gradual downward slide since then, suggesting the Academy and the public increasingly are at loggerheads. And that's bad news for potential Oscar viewership.

But even with the decreased overall box office, all eight of the best picture contenders likely will be profitable this year. Comparing budget to revenue, The Imitation Game is the most successful Oscar-nominated movie of the year. The film's $157.1 million in global box office (and counting) gives it the highest-percentage return-on-investment. In pure dollars, American Sniper has made far more money (nearly $400 million globally), but it will need to top $600 million to match Imitation Game's multiple. What that means in actual profit is less clear, of course. "We don't know what was spent on marketing and what were the 'splits,' meaning who got how much," says Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst with Rentrak.

While the performance of such individual pictures as Sniper and Imitation Game might be good news, that can't mask the marked dip in total box office for this year's best picture nominees compared with a year ago. By Feb. 16, the eight current nominees had earned $999.5 million globally. That leaves a long way to go before they can catch up with the final global haul of $1.99 billion for last year's nine nominees (led by Gravity with $716.4 million). When you go back a few years: The 2013 nominees tallied $2.39 billion (led by Life of Pi with $609 million), and the 2011 nominees included global hits Toy Story 3 ($1.1 billion), Inception ($825.5 million) and Black Swan ($329.4 million). Taken together, those films make Sniper and its cohorts look positively small-time.