Paramount’s Risky Bet on ‘The Big Short’ Pays Off

Paramount cuts number of theaters playing Adam McKay dramedy despite Best Picture Oscar nomination

Paramount Pictures broke the law of the Oscar jungle by cutting back the number of theaters “The Big Short” played last weekend despite earning a Best Picture nomination.

Though the studio sliced the run of Adam McKay‘s fact-based dramedy about the financial crisis by from 2,529 theaters to 1,765, the box office dropped just 14 percent for the three-day weekend, to $5.3 million. The per-theater average was $3,003, or $3,654 with the holiday included.

That’s both a remarkable hold for the film, as well as a risky move by the studio.

When a movie receives a handful of Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director as “The Big Short” and Adam McKay did last week, the studio typically rushes to get it into as many theaters as possible to cash in on the accompanying media attention.

That’s what every other Best Picture nominee still playing in theaters did this past weekend. Open Road Films added 617 theaters for “Spotlight,” Fox Searchlight boosted “Brooklyn” by 393 and A24 added 205 theaters for “Room.” Fox even added 184 locations for “The Revenant,” which was already in 3,375 theaters.

“We knew we had momentum from the nominations and the Golden Globes,” Paramount distribution and marketing chief Megan Colligan told TheWrap, “and this movie plays extremely well in major cities. But it isn’t the kind of film that was going to generate box office numbers that would get us headlines this weekend.”

the.big.short.robbieThe movie faced particularly stiff competition with “Ride Along 2,” “The Revenant,” “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

Left unsaid was the fact that right now, “The Big Short” doesn’t really need box-office headlines to boost its Oscar chances. “We know from the nominations that we’re strong and popular with the Academy,” Colligan said of the ensemble film.

Most awards pundits, including TheWrap’s Steve Pond, put its Best Picture Oscar chances just behind those of “Spotlight” and “The Revenant” heading into Sunday’s critical Producers Guild Awards.

“The Big Short,” produced for an estimated $28 million, has grossed $52 million domestically and connected well on the coasts and in big cities. It opened wide to $10.5 million from 1,585 theaters on Christmas weekend, and followed that with $9 million the next weekend. Its widest run came in its third weekend when it reached 2,529 venues, but it brought in just $6.2 million with a $2,441 per-screen average, half that of the previous two weeks.

That was part of the reason the studio skipped the traditional post-nomination expansion. The best box office days for “The Big Short” could be ahead of it, Colligan said, and there is plenty of time to grow — but not necessarily in one weekend, given that the Oscars are more than a month away.

“When your movie is meaty and substantive, there are always new audiences to crack,” Colligan said. “There are theaters that work and those that don’t, and over the next few weeks we’ll add some runs and try take advantage of opportunities as they present themselves.”

There can be a risk in making even a successful movie too accessible. “Pulling back on the number of theaters has made ‘The Big Short’ an even hotter commodity, with demand outweighing the supply, and that truly is a lesson gleaned from Finance 101,” Rentrak senior media analyst Paul Dergabedian told TheWrap.

For the record, other Best Picture nominees saw solid returns on their expansions. “The Revenant” dropped just 20 percent to $31.8 million, “Brooklyn” rose 68 percent to $1.8 million, “Spotlight” was up 78 percent to $1.7 million and “Room” took in $700,000 for a whopping 504 percent spike.