And the Oscar for Best Picture Almost Nobody Saw Goes to ...

  • Average box office for nominees has been shrinking for years
  • ‘La La Land’ at $341 million globally approaches hits of past

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences hands out its coveted Oscar for best picture on Sunday, odds are the 6,500-plus members will anoint a film that fits the mold of recent honorees -- smallish and artsy.

Gone are the days when megahits such as “Titanic” or “Lord of The Rings” win best picture. Today, the prize is more likely to go to a smaller-budget film with limited exposure outside of big cities like New York and Los Angeles. This year’s nine hopefuls averaged $54 million in domestic ticket sales before their nominations were announced, according to ComScore Inc., not enough to rank in the top 50 for the year.

While the Academy doubled the number of possible nominees to 10 in 2010 to make room for box-office hits, the appeal of the slate has dwindled over the years. That suggests members more than ever are emphasizing creativity over financial success. In 2015, the year “Birdman” won, the eight films vying for best picture had taken in an average of $25.6 million before their nominations, a recent low. When “Titanic” won in 1998, the pre-nominations average of the five contenders was $96.2 million.

“La La Land,” a musical about lovers struggling to succeed in show business, and “Hidden Figures,” about the contributions of three African American women to the early space program, have been the breakout pictures among this year’s nominees. If either captures the Oscar, they would rank among the most successful in a decade.

“Hidden Figures,” from 21st Century Fox Inc.’s film division, has the largest domestic haul among the nominees at $144.5 million as of last weekend, according to ComScore. It’s the third favorite to win at 50-to-1, according to awards tracker GoldDerby.com.

“La La Land” is the clear favorite, at 2-to-11. The film from Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. has the second-biggest tally domestically at $134.6 million and is the leader globally at $340.5 million. It’s also still rolling up sales, with a Feb. 14 release in China and expanded play in the U.S. on Imax Corp.’s big screens.

The second favorite for top prize at 18-to-1 is Barry Jenkins’s coming-of-age feature “Moonlight,” distributed by A24. If that picture wins, its $22 million in domestic sales would mark the smallest total since “The Hurt Locker” in 2010.

Recent data suggest the financial benefit of an Oscar nomination has also waned, probably because the pictures themselves lacked wide appeal. Still, some studios have managed to maximize the opportunity. Warner Bros.’ “American Sniper” generated 99 percent of its $350 million in North American ticket sales after being nominated for best picture.

Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at ComScore, said the nominee with most to gain from a win this year is the Weinstein Co. release “Lion,” about a lost Indian boy who is adopted by an Australian couple. The film was the last of the best-picture nominees to gain wide release. It’s an 80 to 1 shot at GoldDerby.

The studios with most to celebrate at this year’s awards have seen better days commercially. Lions Gate has struggled to develop big films with the appeal of earlier successes like “The Hunger Games” and the “Twilight” series, yet garnered the most Oscar nominations of any distributor with “La La Land,” the World War II drama “Hacksaw Ridge” and “Hell or High Water,” a crime thriller set in modern-day west Texas.

Viacom Inc.’s Paramount Pictures had the second-most nominations because of two best-picture hopefuls, “Arrival” and “Fences.” Yet Viacom replaced studio chief Brad Grey on Wednesday because of losses and is seeking a successor.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
    LEARN MORE