For studios with major contenders at the Academy Awards, it used to be that you could expect a clear window all the way to Oscar Sunday, as January and February were often considered a dumping ground when it comes to distributing new movies in wide release.
But as films like “Deadpool,” the “Fifty Shades” trilogy, and now “Black Panther” make their debuts in February, the window for Oscar contenders to cash in on their nominations has gotten smaller.
While Oscar films like “La La Land” and “Hidden Figures” held a major presence on the January charts last year, the top film of January 2018 was “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” which made $171 million last month alone. That’s more than the combined January revenue of the seven Best Picture nominees still in theaters, which was led by “The Post” with $59.5 million, fifth among all releases.
Exhibitor Relations analyst Jeff Bock says part of the downtick in performance is simply what sort of stories the Best Picture nominee list is offering this year. While “La La Land” and “Hidden Figures” offered mainstream appeal with romantic musicals and inspirational true tales, the two films in this year’s batch that had the most crossover potential, “Dunkirk” and “Get Out,” have long since ended their theatrical runs.
What remains are films that, while critically acclaimed, are not exactly crowd pleasers, averaging only 4.5 million tickets sold based on the national average ticket price of $8.97.
“The nominees in theaters right now have really tough subject matter like ‘Three Billboards’ or are really slow-paced dramas like ‘Phantom Thread’ and ‘Call Me By Your Name.’ Even something like the sci-fi romance in ‘The Shape of Water’ might be a little too weird for casual moviegoers,” said Bock.
“That’s not to say they’re busts. The films have done well for the types of films they are, but they aren’t going to move the needle like ‘La La Land’ did. Ironically, the film that got an Oscar nomination and is doing really well is another musical, ‘The Greatest Showman.’ That performed really well last month in a way that no one expected and it’s making just as much money as ‘La La Land.'”
But these early blockbusters pose a a different problem for Oscar films: screen counts. If a film currently in theaters gets a half-dozen or more Oscar nominations, it will almost assuredly add hundreds of theaters to its screen count the following two weekends. But last weekend saw three new wide releases — “Fifty Shades Freed,” “Peter Rabbit,” and “15:17 to Paris” — enter theaters with a combined screen count of 9,535, with “Black Panther” entering this weekend with a screen count of over 4,000.
As a result, screen counts for all the Best Picture films are taking a big hit. “The Shape of Water,” for example, had a high of 2,341 screens two weeks ago, but after last week’s wide releases arrived, it shed 561 screens last weekend. Box office insiders tell TheWrap that the arrival of “Black Panther” will knock the screen count for “Shape of Water” down to around 950 screens, just 100 more than what the film had the weekend before Oscar nominations were announced.
“Now that big movies are coming out every single month, a lot of the smaller movies are fighting for less shelf space,” said comScore’s Paul Dergarabedian. “The mentality around Hollywood used to be that you could wait until March or April to put out a blockbuster, but now February is seen as a time to put out a big movie now that the holiday films have run their course. That’s great for moviegoers and theaters, but it’s something that awards film distributors now have to keep in mind.”
So what are studios to do with their awards contenders? One distribution chief from a studio with an Oscar contender told TheWrap that the best thing they can do is continue on as planned, keeping confidence in the quality of their film. The head also notes that the 52-week release slate that’s changing February at the box office may mean more competition for moviegoers’ eyeballs, but is ultimately a good thing for movies. It can even work in favor of an Oscar contender, as “Dunkirk” showed when it proved that a weighty WWII film could make summer blockbuster levels of cash in the middle of July.
“Ultimately, anything that brings more people to movie theaters is a good thing for all of us. Rising tides lift all ships,” the distribution chief told TheWrap on condition of anonymity. “Yes, the window of time in which Oscar films are the main offering at theaters isn’t as big as it used to be, but if your movie gets nominated you still have to strike when the opportunity comes. Besides, the main demographic that goes to see, say “The Post,” probably isn’t going to go see a superhero movie, but there’s always the chance that a person that goes to see a blockbuster might end up getting interested when they see the awards films on the marquee.”
There’s obviously no way to accurately predict what sort of Best Picture nominees will be on tap in winter 2019, but they too will have to go against a crowded February slate, including the sequel to “The Lego Movie,” a planned Blumhouse horror release, and the X-Men horror spin-off “The New Mutants,” which was originally slated for this spring but was pushed to next year by Fox.
In the meantime, the Oscar Best Picture race will have to step aside as the major talk of Hollywood. At least until Oscar Sunday, the movie world belongs to Wakanda.