Thursday, February 23, 2012

Oscar films fail to get box office bump

Patrick Goldstein has an interesting article about this year's box office trends.  Revenues are on the rise this year... so long as you're not up for an Oscar.

This year’s box office is booming, except, gulp, for Oscar movies. The 2012 grosses have been surprisingly strong, up nearly 18% year to date compared with 2011. But if you think any of that is thanks to people rushing out to see the best picture contenders ahead of Sunday’s Academy Awards show, think again.

[...] It’s hard to make a strong case that many of the nominated films were helped in any significant way by the Oscar nominations. Even “The Descendants,” which has continued to have a strong showing at the box office, had its biggest grossing weekend at Thanksgiving, not after the nominations were announced. The only films you can argue that have really benefited from Oscar-related box office are “The Artist” and “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” though both films have spent a healthy chunk of their box office gains in nonstop Oscar advertising.

You might recall I recently did a comparative analysis of how this year's nominees performed at the box office versus the films nominated for 1991's Academy Awards.  As we saw, it wasn't a favorable comparison.

Let's throw this down right now - I don't want to see any "Strawman" arguments that accuse me of saying that box office always equals quality.  It doesn't.  However, it is a good way to get a sense of how many eyes have seen a film.  In studying the long-term trends on the Oscar movies and comparing them to the other releases, we can also see there's an enthusiasm gap.  Even after the nominations raised awareness and acted as a public advertisement of these films' critical acclaim, audiences still haven't rushed to the multiplex.

So what's going on here?  What are Safe House, Chronicle and The Vow doing right that the Oscar films are doing wrong?  Safe House and The Vow both only dropped less than 36% at the box office last weekend.  That's a pretty good hold that suggests not only did the marketing and the concept put assess in the seats, but the word-of-mouth was good enough to draw in a big Week 2 audience as well.

Basically, the studios seem to be releasing a good percentage of films that are not only appealing to audiences, but are also leaving them satisfied.

So why is it that when it comes to the nine Best Picture nominees, the raw numbers make Hollywood look like Gretchen Wiener determined to make "fetch" happen?  You could point to polarizing reviews on Extremely Loud, or some of the backlash of War Horse deflating those returns.  The Help had a healthy run earlier.  Midnight in Paris also performed extremely well for a Woody Allen film prior to the nominations, though it's surprising that it didn't get much of a second wind after the nominees.

But why hasn't Moneyball been a smash despite strong reviews, nominations, Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill?  Why is The Descendants still lagging?  Is it simply that seeing these films is akin to "eating one's vegetables?"  Are there simply too many nominees?  Or is it as simple as the fact that the bigger hits this year are largely escapist in nature and audiences are looking to feel good rather than endure drama?

I ask because anyone looking to make a career out of writing needs to know the kind of market that their material exists in.  I rather liked The Descendants and Moneyball.  In particular, I thought the latter was an impressive achievement in taking a concept that could have been dry and non-visual and finding a way into the material through the characters.  So if you were to play in that same screenwriting ballpark, how could you assure a buyer that your script would have more commercial appeal?

If you haven't seen Moneyball, what's stopping you?  It's not silent or in black-and-white.  It's not about death.  It's not by a controversial director.  It's not from a director who's gotten attacked for not making movies as good as he used to.  And it's not a period piece either.  I've run through every cliched excuse that would keep a mainstream audience from a critically acclaimed film and I can't find any reason why Moneyball shouldn't be doing better.  If any of the nominees should have gotten an easy box office bump, it would have been this one.

Or is the problem just that these acclaimed films are speaking to a smaller and smaller percentage of society?  Are they movies for people who don't go to the movies?

Last year's spec market was huge and the start of this year looks promising as well.  A lot of material will probably sell this year - so how will this box office trend dictate what the studios are looking to buy?  I harp on box office from time to time because if you want to be a working writer, you can't pretend that your art exists in a vacuum.  You should study the business as well as the craft, and statistics like this are exactly the sort of thing that a smart writer should be able to find a way to capitalize on.


  1. My husband rented Moneyball via dish service. He really enjoyed it.
    For me, the movie has four strikes against it:
    -it's sports and I'm a somewhat typical woman
    -it's US sports and I'm originally from the continent
    -most people know from the start the outcome; that can dampen the enthusiasm for viewing it
    -it can be hard to identify with the main character's problems; in most movies I can confidently claim I could perform so much better than the people on the screen (Dummy, don’t go into that basement!); in case of Moneyball I honestly don’t know how I would fix those data sheets

    Now, if they had a Cubs movie centered around that goat...

  2. I liked Moneyball, but it's slow... just like baseball. There are a lot of scenes with guys sitting around talking... often called scenes of death by script readers.

  3. Moneyball is about baseball and statistics, two things that bore me. I mean, baseball is pretty fun in person, but on TV is soooo boring. I know people say this movie is good, but I just can't get over the combo of baseball and statistics.

  4. Did you see the L.A. Times article about the demographics of the Academy? It's mostly men over 65. They like a different sort of movie than the crowd that shows up at the Cineplex on Saturday night for Transformers.

  5. Baseball = boring
    Skinny Jonah Hill = no appeal

    R.I.P. Fat Jonah Hill. You were one of the funniest comedic actors of the last decade.