The Race: Too Big, Too Small, Just Right?

Merrick Morton/Columbia Tristar

Box-office glory hardly guarantees a slot in the best picture Oscar race, but a film’s take can be a factor.

The Best Picture Oscar is more than a popularity contest; if that’s all it were, then the record-shattering Avatar would have triumphed at the 82nd Annual Academy Awards over The Hurt Locker, which barely registered at the box office. And this year, such top-five domestic grossers as Iron Man 2 and the Twilight sequel Eclipse would be major contenders, alongside Toy Story 3 and Inception.

Oscar rarely validates the top-grossing movies of the year; 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is the only film to win the box-office crown and best picture during the past decade. But as the third installment in a mammothly successful trilogy, which also earned critical respect, it couldn’t be ignored.

At the other end of the spectrum, a little movie that stalls at the box office usually falls by the awards wayside as well. Hurt Locker, rescued from commercial oblivion by near-unanimous critical support, was the exception that proves the rule.

Return of the King and Hurt Locker should be considered outliers, then. While box office is a factor during awards season, most years, Academy voters are happy to opt for a modestly successful film that strikes a sizable chord with their fellow moviegoers — or at least their fellow upscale, adult moviegoers.

That’s why a movie like Sony’s The Social Network is sitting in the sweet spot right now, having sold more than $90 million worth of tickets domestically since its October release. As an added bonus for inside-Hollywood voters, it also proved that a studio-sponsored movie could play as smartly as an indie pic.

Several of the year-end releases look as if they might be able to stake similar claims, though. The Coen brothers notched their biggest opening when True Grit made a surprise second-place showing during the Christmas weekend. Although not quite as robust, The Fighter found a receptive audience in its second weekend of wide release. The King’s Speech, which widened to 700 theaters, ranked 11th for the Christmas weekend but enjoyed the third-highest per-theater average among the broader releases. And The Black Swan, which exploded onto the specialty scene, faces the challenge of maintaining its opening pace if it hopes to become another Slumdog Millionaire.

As Academy and guild members ponder their nomination ballots, the awards race has entered that crucial time when projecting a sense of momentum is all-important. Because that momentum can, in turn, morph into a sense of inevitability.              

AWARDS & REWARDS: Pre-Oscar grosses for the past 10 Best Picture winners

Gladiator $186.6
A Beautiful Mind $154.7
Chicago $134.0
Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King $364.1
Million Dollar Baby $64.9
Crash $53.4
The Departed $131.8
No Country for Old Men $64.3
Slumdog Millionaire $98.4
The Hurt Locker $14.7