And the winner is … DVD sales

These days, Oscar gives home video a winning nod

For all the talk of Oscar gold, this year the best picture winner will have to look to DVD to see a payout.

As of the weekend, Warner Bros. Pictures' best picture winner "The Departed" had grossed $131.6 million at the domestic boxoffice and picked up an additional $146.7 million internationally. But because the movie hit DVD shelves in the U.S. on Feb. 13, it's not in the position to take anything more than a cursory bow in the form of further theatrical engagements.

In years past, most of the major nominees were still in theaters during awards season, meaning a best picture win could result in a significant boxoffice bump. Last year's winner, Lionsgate's "Crash" — a May release that hit the video shelves the previous September — suggested that a new pattern had arrived.

For the 10 years before "Crash," setting aside the entirely sui generis 1998 winner "Titanic," the average increase at the domestic boxoffice after a best picture win was 12%, or $18.8 million. With "Crash," the bump was all about added DVD sales. And because of the timing of its DVD release, "Departed" is even better positioned to take advantage of its four Oscar wins.

As far as the theatrical life of this year's best picture contenders went, being nominated wasn't just an honor but also an opportunity for some of the smaller films to raise their boxoffice profile. The five best picture nominees saw their domestic boxoffice take increase by more than $9 million between the nominations Jan. 23 and Sunday night's ceremony.

But the returns varied significantly. Fox Searchlight's "Little Miss Sunshine," which already had picked up $59.59 million by the time it was nominated, had to settle for picking up a little loose change. "Departed," which had been in theaters for 16 weeks by the time of the noms, boosted its domestic grosses from $121.7 million to $131.6 million. Paramount Vantage's "Babel," which had a more difficult time finding its boxoffice footing, saw its domestic gross climb from $23.7 million to $33.8 million. Miramax Films' "The Queen," taking full advantage of Helen Mirren's awards-season success, soared from $25.6 million to $52.9 million — with an added purse of $17.3 million, it was the biggest beneficiary of the nominations. Warners' "Letters From Iwo Jima," which still was in limited release when the noms were announced, rose from $2.4 million to $12.8 million.

By Oscar night, though, three of the films had migrated to video.

"Sunshine" has been out since December; the day after it received its four Oscar noms, sales rose by 60% to 200% in retail stores nationwide, according to Fox.

"Departed" bowed at No. 1 on the national DVD sales as well as rental charts the week of its Feb. 13 release. Consumers bought more than 3 million copies of the two DVD versions — a single disc and a two-disc special edition — in its first week in stores, on the high end of what a film with a U.S. boxoffice gross of about $130 million typically sells.

"Babel," a third best picture nominee, came out Tuesday and is expected to easily top the sales and rental charts for the week, though results won't be in until Wednesday.

What 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment spokesman Steve Feldstein calls an "Oscar bump" isn't uncommon in the home entertainment industry. Last year, "Crash," which like "Sunshine" this year was the only best picture contender to be available on DVD when the nominations were announced, saw a significant bump in sales in the ensuing days even though it had been out since September. Lionsgate also used "Crash's" DVD availability to fuel its Oscar campaign, sending 130,000 screeners to critics groups, including all 100,000 SAG members.

With its Oscar validation, "Departed" is perfectly situated to make a killing.