Proof That Chasing an Oscar Isn't a Great Business Model
Spotlight may well have been the best film released in 2015, as Academy Award voters decreed on Sunday, but it remains one of Hollywood’s most humdrum recent investments. It rounded up just $62 million in box-office revenue, about 3 percent of the haul garnered by Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
The spread between the most celebrated film and the most lucrative is seldom quite so wide, but it’s typically a sizable gap. Average ticket sales for Best Picture winners over the past 10 years have equaled just 19 percent to the box-office receipts of the most lucrative films over that span. The widest gap came in 2010, when The Hurt Locker swiped the gold statue and Avatar made the most money.
The films that win the most Oscars in any given year tend to be bit more popular at the box office. Mad Max: Fury Road took home six statues on Sunday night and already has amassed an impressive $378 million in ticket sales. In the past decade, the most-awarded film managed an average box-office haul equal to almost one-third of the top-grossing film of each respective year.
It turns out that making a fine film is a bit like writing a great book of poetry—it’s a relatively poor financial decision. The movie-going masses really do want to watch Vin Diesel in a Furious car, not a serious work of cinema grappling with weighty social issues. This is not shocking to anyone who has ever Netflixed and, you know, relaxed. On a Friday night, after a stressful workweek, 12 Years a Slave seems like a heavy lift. Diesel himself suggested the Academy Awards would become less relevant to filmgoers if Furious 7 was snubbed, which it was.
What’s surprising, however, is that Hollywood still goes out of its way to chase Oscars. Only one of this year’s Best Picture nominees, The Martian, was a top 10 box-office performer. Two of the six made less in theaters than Spotlight 1 Brooklyn has gathered just $36.5 million at the box office, while Room made just $23.6 million. .
So where’s the payoff? There is a real Oscar bump. Most of the high-profile nominees get a second run in thousands of theaters and command a much longer and wider stream of on-demand revenue and DVD sales. It's not uncommon for an Oscar film to get more than half its ticket sales after being nominated, according to analysis by IMDb's Box Office Mojo.
Actors and directors balancing an Oscar-worthy script against Disney's superhero mash-up du jour may weight their careers more heavily than their portfolios. An Oscar is a 13.5-inch, 8.5 pound tome of job security, and that little bald man is great at salary negotiation. Plus, at the critical Academy Awards after-party, it's far more stylish to clutch a statue than a watery cocktail—and it's difficult to put a value on that.