Amid the frenzy of the red carpet, the fashion faux pas, the weepy acceptance speeches and the host's inevitably toothless jokes, it's easy to forget that the Academy Awards aren't simply a chance for the rich and famous to pat each other on the back for being good entertainers.
Underlying the Hollywood lovefest is big, big money for everyone involved, from the network that broadcasts the ceremony — this year, ABC will charge advertisers approximately $1.7 million per 30 seconds of commercial airtime, more than ever before — to the movie studios whose films are in contention for the industry's biggest prize, most of which typically see a substantial boost at the box office.
With so much moolah at stake, it only makes sense that studios would try to capitalize on Oscar buzz in any way they can, whether through theatrical expansions or massive marketing campaigns. Or, as has been the case more recently, through the timing of DVD releases, which has the potential to substantially alter the way studios structure not only their Oscar marketing, but also their annual theatrical release calendar.
Unless you unabashedly hate all things about serious cinema, it's easy to see how winning an Academy Award boosts a film's ticket sales: People want to watch good movies, and awards are ostensibly a sign of quality. In fact, even simply being nominated does wonders to the bottom line. Four of this year's five Best Picture nominees saw their per-theater take increase on the weekend after nominations were announced, which, when combined with their expansion to additional theaters ("The Departed," for example, leapt from 127 to 1,453 theaters for the weekend of Jan. 26-28), offers the potential for millions and millions in added ticket sales.
"There is definitely an Oscar bump," said Steve Feldstein, a senior vice president for corporate and marketing communications at 20th Century Fox, the distributor of four-time nominee "Little Miss Sunshine." "There's so much coverage of all the nominees leading up to the Oscars, and certainly post-Oscars, that there's an entire wave of momentum around movies. There's peaked interest from those that hadn't perhaps thought to experience [a movie] before."
Since revenue and awareness are directly tied to that coverage and being in the public eye, it makes sense for studios to release their likeliest Academy Award contenders as close to the Oscar ceremony as possible. And that, in turn, results in the Oscar effect moviegoers know all too well, with serious, prestige films back-loaded toward the end of the calendar year — of the 20 Best Picture nominees over the last four years, all but three opened theatrically in the last third of the year.
This is where those little shiny discs known as DVDs come in.
In 2006, "Crash" came out of the blue to steal the Best Picture crown from "Brokeback Mountain," and it did so despite not having been in theaters for six months leading up to the Oscars. Industry pundits have suspected that the savvy release of the "Crash" DVD in early September contributed to the upset, particularly because none of the other nominees were out on DVD before the big night.
While Fox's Feldstein insisted that "There's no hard or fast rule" when it comes to the timing of a movie's DVD release and that "Each film is looked at individually," when asked directly whether it helps a film's Oscar chances to be out on DVD before Academy Award season, he was more circumspect: "Sure didn't hurt 'Crash,' did it?"
This year, three of the five Best Picture nominees will be fully stocked on rental shelves prior to the Feb. 25 awards gala, with "Little Miss Sunshine" and "The Departed" out even before the final ballots from Academy voters were due. "Sunshine" is in a position much like "Crash" was last year, having opened in the summer and been available on disc since mid-December. And while it might not explicitly have been planned that way, the fact that the Sundance favorite was already on DVD come Oscar season "was fortuitous, let's put it like that," said Feldstein. Sure enough, during the week of nominations, sales of the "Sunshine" DVD jumped by between 60 and 200 percent.
With "The Departed," Warner Brothers has pursued an even more aggressive Oscar campaign, practically stuffing the Martin Scorsese film down audiences' throats by releasing an Oscar-nomination-touting DVD on Feb. 13 while the movie was still playing in more than 700 theaters. We'll see, come Feb. 25, whether the studio's drastic shortening of the usual window between a film's theatrical and rental lives bears fruit, but some of the advantages of an earlier release are obvious: It's easier to get Academy members to watch your movie on DVD than in theaters, particularly considering the growth of rent-by-mail services such as Netflix; officially releasing the DVD greatly reduces the piracy concerns that led MPAA President Jack Valenti to (temporarily and misguidedly) ban the distribution of screener copies in 2003; and, most notably, it allows you to combine your Oscar marketing and DVD marketing.
It seems likely that the trend toward earlier DVD releases for potential Oscar candidates will continue, which could restructure the entire movie year. We may gradually see more serious movies sprinkled into the summer season, offering counter-programming to the usual mind-numbing, special-effects-heavy blockbusters and allowing for a bevy of Oscar-pandering DVDs around the holidays. Or maybe the buffer between theatrical and rental release will continue to be compressed further, a la "The Departed," until DVDs are being hawked as soon as the first theatrical audience drop-off begins.
But regardless of strategic release calendar restructuring, DVD marketing or other fancy studio footwork, one thing remains constant: In the end, Hollywood still has its eyes on a 13.5-inch, 8.5-pound golden knight nicknamed Oscar.