This year’s Oscar contenders are poised to pack more punch than last year’s at the box office, analysts and industry insiders have told TheWrap.
While it’s way too early to guess the complete list of Best Picture nominees, there are promising signs in recent weeks that commercial hits like Ridley Scott‘s “The Martian” — with two weeks at No. 1 and a $144 million domestic haul for Fox — have established enough critical acclaim to be a legitimate Oscar contender.
“To have a film achieve the artistic success that the Oscars signify and be popular enough to be a hit at the box office is pretty much the Holy Grail in Hollywood,” Rentrak senior analyst Paul Dergarabedian told TheWrap. “I’m not sure there is that kind of ‘Forest Gump’-type film out there this year, but there are a number of movies with real potential and some, like the ‘The Martian,’ could get there.”
In addition, two other recent critical darlings are showing some box office clout. Steven Spielberg‘s “Bridge of Spies” opened to $15.4 million last weekend, while Danny Boyle‘s “Steve Jobs” is tracking in the mid- to high-teen millions and could debut at No. 1 this Friday after taking in $2.2 million in limited release.
That’s a welcome change from last year, when Academy voters favored art over commerce with their Best Picture choices. Five of the eight Best Picture nominees grossed less than $27 million domestically and the biggest commercial hit, Warner Bros.’ “American Sniper,” took in more than all the seven other nominees combined.
It probably wasn’t a coincidence that the ratings were down 16 percent from 2014, hitting a six-year low with 38.6 million viewers. (The top-rated Oscars were in 1998, when mega-hit “Titanic” won; 55.2 million viewers tuned in.)
Academy Award voters aren’t keen on addressing the relationship between box office and the honors, but this we know: While commercial success doesn’t always help a film’s chances for an Academy Award, it seldom hurts. And, depending on a film’s release date, a nomination can mean tens of millions of dollars in added grosses, a victory ever more.
Prior to the nominations, last year’s eight Best Picture contenders had grossed on average $28 million domestically. After the nominations, they shot up to an average of roughly $52 million, and after the Oscars, they moved up to $81 million. “American Sniper” had a lot to do with that, earning nearly all of its $350 million post-nominations.
With 2015 on a record pace at the domestic box office, there are a handful of films that have delighted massive fan bases that would love to see them register with Academy voters. But history tells us that blockbusters “Furious 7,” “Avengers: The Age of Ultron,” “Jurassic World” and “Minions” will be recognized only in the technical categories, if at all.
“A rising tide lifts all boats at the box office, and ‘Star Wars’ is certainly going to raise the box-office tide,” said Dergarabedian. “We’re heading for a record year at the domestic box office, and getting there will require some of this adult fare to connect.”
At this point, the highest-grossing movies with a shot at a Best Picture nomination are “The Martian,” Disney/Pixar’s animated hit “Inside Out,” which has grossed $355 million domestically, and Universal’s “Straight Outta Compton,” which has tallied $160 million domestically.
But there are several upcoming films with solid box office prospects and the potential to catch the eye of Academy voters, including Sony’s Will Smith NFL injury saga “Concussion,” Warner Bros.’ “In the Heart of the Sea,” director Ron Howard‘s disaster saga starring Chris Hemsworth, Paramount’s “The Big Short,” writer-director Adam McKay‘s take on the housing loan crisis starring Brad Pitt, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Steve Carell.
Fox has high hopes for its two Christmas Day releases, David O. Russell’s “Joy,” reteaming “Silver Linings Playbook” stars Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s frontier drama “The Revenant,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Both have potential to score in the awards race and at multiplexes. Last year, Gonzalez Iñárritu’s Best Picture Oscar winner “Birdman” became his highest-grossing film at $42 million.
And Quentin Tarantino, whose “The Hateful Eight” will get a limited release on Dec. 25 from The Weinstein Company, has a track record of earning both nominations and ticket sales.
Most of those studio films will deliver at the box office, and the trick will be landing nominations. For several independent films, running up impressive grosses may be the tougher challenge.
Yet to come are Fox Searchlight’s period piece “Brooklyn” (Nov. 4), Bleecker Street’s Bryan Cranston Blacklist tale “Trumbo” (Nov. 6), the Weinstein Company’s Cate Blanchett drama “Carol” (Nov. 20) and Focus Features’ Eddie Redmayne drama “The Danish Girl ” (Nov. 27) — all smart, stylish efforts that can be expected to do better critically than commercially.
A24’s quirky “Room” (photo above), starring Brie Larson as a mother trapped in a garden shed with her young son for years, has some commercial potential as well as creative cred, and the same is true for Open Road’s “Spotlight,” a look at the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer-Prize probe of the Catholic Church sex scandal starring Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton and Rachel McAdams. “Room” averaged nearly $30,000 per theater in its debut over the weekend and “Spotlight” opens in early November.
“The same challenging and tough subject matter that intrigues art-house fans, and drives the attention they get there, makes they’re getting broad mainstream appeal less likely,” Exhibitor Relations senior analyst Jeff Bock told TheWrap. “It’s a bit of a paradox.”
It’s also worth noting that every year’s Oscar-nominated group’s commercial clout can swing from one extreme to the other based on the Academy’s choices. Had “Interstellar” and “Gone Girl” received nominations last year, rather than “Whiplash” and “The Theory of Everything,” last year’s pack would have been among the strongest at the box office, rather than among the weakest.