Hollywood’s Big Night ™ is just a few weeks away, and if you spend any time at all reading entertainment news, it’s absolutely unavoidable. The run-up to the Academy Awards ceremony on February 26 has a pace and omnipresence similar to the end of election season, and with much of the same spirit – the nominees are campaigning, shaking hands and posing for photos wherever they can, while pollsters and pundits crunch the indicators, examine the history, and make their best prognostications. It’s all pretty silly, when you get down to it, and has little if nothing to do with the actual art of the motion picture.
But even those of us critical of the pomp and circumstance go along with it, often justifying the razzle-dazzle with the knowledge of the positive outcome of this little circus: that Oscar nominations and wins translate to greater exposure for good films, most easily measured the box office “Oscar bump.” The payday is tidy – based on whose reporting you read, a Best Picture winner can see their receipts increase by anywhere from $18 million to $34 million. So that kind of lift, particularly when experienced by smaller, independently-made non-superhero movies, is worth all the hulabaloo, right?
Short answer: sure. But if you look at the sources of this conventional wisdom, and examine the most recent evidence of the Oscar Effect, you’ll find the Oscar Effect is often overstated – and fails to account for shifts in an industry that is literally changing by the year.
On the face of it, the Academy Award nominations had a real, tangible effect on this year’s eight Best Picture nominees that were in release (the ninth, Hell or High Water, is no longer in theaters). All but one of them saw an increase in their box office receipts for the weekend of January 27, according to Box Office Mojo, which provides the change in revenue, total box office, change in number of screens, and per-screen-average for each:
Hidden Figures: -10.9%, $14 million, -65 screens, $4179 PSA
La La Land: +45.2%, $12.2 million, +1271 screens, $3901 PSA
Lion: +33.0%, $2.3 million, no screen change, $4085 PSA
Manchester by the Sea: +116.5%, $2 million, +625 screens, $1759 PSA
Moonlight: +150.8%, $1.48 million, +615 screens, $1349 PSA
Arrival: +358.4%, $1.47 million, +1041 screens, $1207 PSA
Fences: +18.8%, $1.44 million, +187 screens, $1640 PSA
Hacksaw Ridge: +432.8%, $416K, +377 screens, $829 PSA
But there’s a bit more to the story than these raw numbers. Of the seven films that got an Oscar bump, two (Arrival and Fences) actually saw a decrease in their per-screen average from the previous weekend, and one (Manchester) remained stagnant in PSA. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s fairly self-explanatory: an average attained by dividing the total box office by the total number of screens, and thus providing a snapshot of how many people wanted to see a movie, in a city where they can see it. (PSAs are trumped loudly during the early weekends of limited, big-city releases.) So if those films’ PSAs dropped or stayed the same, their totals increased because so many screens were added after their nominations. This has, over recent years, become part of the release strategy for prestige pictures; in fact, most of this year’s nominees had dropped anywhere from 47 to 649 screens just the previous week, making their big gains a combination of nomination buzz and booking sleight-of-hand.
This was the story last year as well; every Best Picture nominee but one (The Revenant – like Hidden Figures, a recent wide release seeing a typical week-to-week drop) saw its box office rise the weekend after the nominations. But three of those films (The Big Short, Brooklyn, and Spotlight) decreased their per-screen average that weekend – and contrary to the narrative, only one of the major category winners (Best Picture Spotlight) benefited from its win with an increase in box office in the week following the ceremony:
Spotlight (Best Picture): +140%, 1.7 million, +542 screens, $1439 PSA
Room (Best Actress): -20.4%, $461K, +35 screens, $817 PSA
The Revenant (Best Actor/Director): -13.9%, $3.4 million, -157 screens, $2287 PSA
The Danish Girl (Supporting Actress): -32.1%, $37K, -16 screens, $742 PSA
Bridge of Spies (Supporting Actor): -46.8%, $16K, -67 screens, $576 PSA
But in 2015, all went as you’d expect: every Best Picture nominee in theatrical release saw an increase in total box office and per-screen average after the announcement of their nomination, and all but one winner (Boyhood, which had, in all fairness, been out since the previous summer) saw an increase in the week after the ceremony. So are we seeing a shift in the paradigm, this quickly?
If so, it would fly in the face of what we’ve heard, for years, about the Oscar Effect. A 2013 analysis on Bloomberg, citing “a report by Randy Nelson, professor of economics and finance at Colby College,” noted that “a nomination for Best Actor or Best Actress increases box office revenue by about $683,660 (we adjusted the values from the 2001 report to 2012 dollars). For Best Picture, the boost jumps to $6.9 million… Taking home a big award has an even greater impact: Based on Nelson’s study, a Best Picture win boosts box office sales by $18.1 million, on average.”
But there’s a problem with the oft-cited Nelson report, “What’s an Oscar worth?” It’s a well-researched and important paper, but its analysis was drawn from films released between 1978 and 1987 – its figures are at least thirty years old. And the current exhibition and distribution model is, indeed, from another century; in the 1970s and 1980s, an Oscar nominee or winner could play months longer than they do now, up to and over a year, even. Over the last three years, when the Best Picture winner has been a film released in October or early November, the trophy has primarily functioned as a nice bit of extra advertising for the Blu-ray and VOD release.
But the “Oscar = big money” notion persists. A widely-circulated survey by IBISWorld figured a Best Picture Oscar added, on an average, $34 million to the box office take of the last four winners – but that’s the trouble with averages, since that frame included two megahits (Slumdog Millionaire and The Departed), one of which was a megahit well before it was nominated for anything, coupled with one movie that didn’t even clear $34 million, total (The Hurt Locker). So it’s hard to make a generalization based on those figures. In 2011, blogger Edmund Helmer put the boost figure at $13.9 million for a Best Picture winner, but again, he was analyzing a very different era, from 1990 to 2009; two years later, when he collapsed that frame to twelve years and compared the data to the Golden Globe winners, Helmer discovered the average bump of an Oscar winner to be $3 million – far less valuable, per his calculations, than a Globe win ($14 million).
But that also speaks to what’s happening to those time frames: the Globes are awarded in January, closer to the flurry of year-end awards, in the midst (rather than the end of) awards season. And, in recent years, the increased length of that season prompts some understandable fatigue; particularly with these last three Best Picture winners, all of which had splashy festival premieres in September followed by October releases and months of speculation, analysis, and think-piecing, it’s probably safe to say that by the time they pick up their gold trophy, most people who are going to see them, have. (And the sell-line of “Academy Award nominee” or even “Academy Award winner” appears to matter less to ticket buyers than trailers, stars, and buzz from other moviegoers and critics.)
So is “the Oscar effect” a real thing? Certainly. But it’s also true that it’s not a one-size-fits-all profitability booster – and that the effect is often overstated, or at least fudged. In other words, a lot of the supposed good of the Academy Awards is hype. Who’da thunk it, from an honest industry like this one?