How Does Strong Box-Office Showing for 'Gravity' Impact Oscar Chances? (Analysis)

THR's awards analyst explains why an expensive film's box-office showing is more connected to its chances of getting nominated than it is to its chances of winning.

Right now, all but about a half-dozen 2013 best picture Oscar hopefuls have been seen by myself and the other full-time awards pundits, and virtually all of us agree that if the Oscars took place tomorrow the winner would be either 12 Years a Slave or Gravity.

While both are great films, most have been giving the edge to 12 Years a Slave, since it tackles real events of great historical significance, as opposed to Gravity, which plays out a fictional crisis that seems a bit fantastical. But, on the basis of Gravity's strong commercial debut this weekend, and the unlikelihood of a similar showing for 12 Years when it opens two weekends from now -- a $20 million drama about slavery (even one with Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt) has less appeal to the general public than an $100 million thriller about space (especially one with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) -- might it now be time to consider the alternative possibility?

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Yes and no.

Box-office numbers and Oscar outcomes have a strange relationship with one another. Being a big hit is not essential to winning -- The Hurt Locker became the lowest-grossing best picture Oscar winner ever (in terms of its inflation-adjusted domestic gross) by beating Avatar, which would have become the highest-grossing best picture Oscar winner ever. But, for big-budget films, at least, it is generally pivotal to scoring a nomination.

In other words, low-budget indies like The Hurt Locker are never expected to be blockbusters, so they are generally judged purely on their artistic merits, and if they make money then that is considered icing on the cake. Behemoths like Avatar and Inception, on the other hand, are expected to bring in big bucks, so if they don't then they tend to be labeled as disappointments and never really recover. And even if a film like that does still manage to get nominated for best picture, it rarely wins. Consider the case of Hugo, which cost a whopping $170 million to make, grossed just $186 million and promptly lost to The Artist, which cost $15 million and made $44 million.

When big movies do live up to expectations, though -- as Gravity appears to be doing -- they can ride that momentum to a lot of nominations. And the best picture nominee that garners the most overall nominations -- you guessed it -- usually wins (although the recently implemented new voting system may undermine that maxim to some extent).. An obvious past example of this would be a film with a plot-structure and degree of technical ambition similar to Gravity's, Titanic.

So where will Gravity stand in the best picture Oscar race Monday morning? I think that this weekend has confirmed it as a safe bet for a nomination, but hasn't necessarily pushed it ahead of 12 Years of Slave in terms of being the most likely winner. At the end of the day, under the current best picture voting system, the Oscar will go not necessarily to the nominee that the public turned out for the most, but rather to the nominee that the fewest voters find objectionable and which boasts the best and best-sold narrative.

Last year, that film was Argo (narrative: Ben Affleck's big comeback -- a fun, old-fashioned movie about the power of movies -- that the Academy's directors branch forgot to notice). It's simply too early to tell what that film will be this year -- but, on the basis of this weekend, we can say with a fair degree of certainty that Gravity, another Warner Bros. film, will have a shot to be it.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg