Revenge of the Box-Office Winners: How Big Movies Are Eclipsing Indies in the Oscar Race



This story first appeared in the Dec. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

You can't blame the public for thinking the Oscar race is out of whack. For more than a decade, the best picture contest has been dominated by small, independent films that never established a major box-office presence, at least not initially. The classic example is The Hurt Locker -- it grossed a mere $17 million in North America -- which on the way to the 2010 best picture trophy beat out Avatar, the top-grossing film of all time, with a worldwide take of $2.8 billion. Again and again, Academy voters have made it clear that box office isn't a requirement for a win.

Or is it?

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This year's lineup is a different matter. Suddenly, the box office is playing a key role in boosting -- or diminishing -- some films' awards chances. The main reason is that many of the top contenders, like DreamWorks/Disney's Lincoln and Warner Bros.' Argo, are nationwide studio releases.

The mainstream media paid less attention to the grosses of the past two best picture winners, The Artist and The King's Speech, because those films were limited players whose box-office performance was more difficult to analyze during the early stages of their slow rollouts. But when a studio opens a movie successfully in wide release at the multiplex, it generates media coverage and excitement, which in turn filters down to awards voters. On the other hand, poor box-office returns can result in negative coverage, which makes securing a best picture nom that much tougher.

Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master was an early awards favorite but quickly burned out at the box office after The Weinstein Co. moved it into nearly 800 locations during its second weekend. The September release topped out at $15.6 million domestically and disappeared.

Lincoln provides a contrasting case. Skeptics wondered whether moviegoers would show up for a history lesson, even if it was praised by critics. But the Steven Spielberg film is doing better than many predicted and has become a must-see event film for older adults. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the storied 16th U.S. president, Lincoln has earned more than $62 million in North America in less than two weeks and placed an impressive No. 3 during the long Thanksgiving weekend, behind Twilight: Breaking Dawn -- Part 2 and the James Bond pic Skyfall. It's on track to cross the $100 million mark, not bad for a 19th century stateroom drama.

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Overcoming box-office expectations creates an aura that can then translate into awards consideration -- as a number of movies are proving this season.

Ben Affleck's Argo is itself on the brink of crossing the $100 million mark domestically, which is sure to generate a fresh round of attention. Ang Lee's Life of Pi, from 20th Century Fox, opened well ahead of predictions during the Thanksgiving frame, increasing its chances of securing a nomination. And Robert Zemeckis' Flight, starring Denzel Washington, also has overperformed, grossing nearly $75 million to date for Paramount.

Even a popcorn movie can benefit. MGM and Sony's Skyfall received great reviews but wasn't considered a real awards player until it turned into a mammoth global hit. Directed by Sam Mendes, with Daniel Craig returning as 007 for a third time, Skyfall has grossed nearly $800 million worldwide and is the first Bond movie to cross the $200 million mark domestically.

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Meanwhile, midrange performers can turn into question marks. Such is the case with David O. Russell's critical darling Silver Linings Playbook, another Weinstein Co. title. Initially, the family drama, starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro, was scheduled to open nationwide in more than 2,000 theaters on Nov. 21. But at the eleventh hour, The Weinstein Co. decided to scale back to 367 theaters, likely because of soft tracking. It was a risky move; a more traditional platform release would have called for a lower location count, allowing the movie to build slowly throughout awards season, a classic Harvey Weinstein strategy.

The result: The movie attracted only $6.2 million during the holidays. The Weinstein Co. insisted it was happy with that number, but the movie's per-location average of $15,423 was less than Lincoln's $17,225, even though the Spielberg film was playing in more than five times the number of theaters (2,018).

It's still too early to count out efforts like Playbook -- which should build momentum thanks to word-of-mouth -- but this year, it's the studios and their big-ticket movies that are playing offense.

"The studios are back this year in the awards race, and all these movies are going to make a lot of money," one veteran awards consultant says. "What's happening is that the adult dramas like Lincoln and Skyfall have become event pics for adults. You no longer have to go to the art house to see a good movie."

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  • Amour: Dec. 19 (limited)
  • Zero Dark Thirty: Dec. 19 (limited)
  • Django Unchained: Dec. 25 (wide)
  • Les Miserables: Dec. 15 (wide)
  • Promised Land: Dec. 28 (limited)