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Oscar nods aren’t translating into ticket boom

Anthony Mackie, Jeremy Renner
‘Crazy Heart,’ starring Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal may be getting the biggest bump, even though it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture.Courtesy of Summit Entertainment / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Spread 10 ways, the phrase "nominated for best picture" hasn't had much of a box office effect.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doubled the number of nominees this year in hopes of drawing more attention to more movies. But the revenue bump for this year's crop is less than the one enjoyed by last year's five best-picture hopefuls.

And of that $135 million, all but about $24 million went to the one film in least need of an Oscar bump: the record-smashing "Avatar." The figures were generated between the nominations Feb. 2 and the last weekend before Sunday's awards.

Last year's best picture nominees pulled in $146 million over a comparable period, and most of that went to a film Oscar helped turn into a sensation: "Slumdog Millionaire." Three of the five 2009 nominees at least doubled their take in that period, something no film in this year's batch even came close to doing.

"The bottom line is adding five more movies didn't necessarily add two times the gross to the crop of films," said Paul Dergarabedian, box office president for industry tracker

One possible explanation is that a best-picture nod may be less valuable now with more films getting one, but several other factors lessened the honor's financial impact.

The awards ceremony this year is two weeks later, March 7 vs. Feb. 22 last year, so that the show wouldn't compete with the Olympics, and the nominations came two weeks later as well. Generally, the longer a movie is in theaters, the less it brings in each week.

Snowstorms along the East Coast also appeared to dampen enthusiasm to see Oscar-nominated films, said Bruce Goerlich, chief research officer for market researcher Rentrak Corp.

In addition, five of this year's nominees weren't even in theaters by the time they were nominated: front-runner "The Hurt Locker," "A Serious Man," "Inglourious Basterds," "Up" and "District 9." Last year, all five best picture contenders were still in theaters when nominations were announced.

"Up" was released so long ago it has been out on DVD for 3½ months. "The Hurt Locker" did return to the big screen, but only in about 100 theaters nationwide.

"It used to be for years, the (nominated) pictures would be re-released at Oscar time," said Tom Sherak, president of the Academy. "But it's not viable to do that any more, so most studios don't."

Sherak believes expanding the category to 10 has been successful because it means more people have seen the nominated films and are likely to be interested in Sunday's broadcast.

This year's biggest Oscar bump, percentage-wise, might go to a movie out of the best picture race: "Crazy Heart." Prior to Jeff Bridges' best actor Oscar nomination, the film took in just $5.5 million. It has since added about $20 million, and its theater count looks to expand again, from 1,148 to around 1,300 this weekend.

"We're prepared to go even wider if the momentum is still there," said Stephen Gilula, the president of Fox Searchlight, which is a niche film label owned by News Corp.

Fox Searchlight followed the same pattern for "Slumdog Millionaire" last year, Gilula said. "Slumdog" cleaned up at the Oscars and the box office, making $81 million of its $125 million in ticket sales between the nominations and the week before the ceremony.

This year's smaller overall bounty may also be due to the "Avatar" effect. James Cameron's 3-D epic has become such a juggernaut that it has collected $111 million of the $135 million in ticket sales generated by best picture nominees since the nominations.

Given that "Avatar" has reaped $2.6 billion in ticket sales worldwide, its lift from Oscar acclaim was relatively small. But the action-packed eye candy of "Avatar" may have pulled attention away from other nominees, such as the gritty-till-the-end "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire."

Although "Precious" still powered through the awards season with growing ticket sales — making a healthy $47 million domestically on a $10 million production budget — its post-Oscar nomination bounce has been a measly $1.7 million.

Of course, every year's films are different and critical success translates commercially in unpredictable ways. Last year, "Slumdog" became a global party that audiences everywhere wanted to support. In contrast, "Precious" can be too raw for some audiences to bear.

Sony Pictures Classics' "An Education" did appear to get a small benefit from its best-picture nomination, going from $8.8 million to more than $12 million domestically.

"I think 10 (nominees) is a good thing," said studio co-president Michael Barker. "It causes more attention for more pictures. I'm not feeling a sense of dilution."

And a nomination lasts forever, whether a movie is in theaters or being offered on Netflix, so the full story of the benefits of the expanded category hasn't been told yet. Studios make billions of dollars on DVD and Blu-ray disc sales, not to mention what they collect from pay TV outlets at home and abroad.

Indeed, the revenue for "Up" from rentals, video-on-demand and disc sales had been declining before that movie's nomination. On the second week after the nomination it jumped 23 percent, according to Rentrak.

"If you're selling the DVD and the box said on it, 'Nominated for best picture of the year,' I mean if you didn't catch it, you'd be inclined to say, 'You know, I never saw that movie, it must be fairly decent, right?'" said Dan Fellman, head of distribution at Warner Bros.