Oscars Airdate Change May Force a Big Box Office Shift

Academy Award nominations bump no more? Christmas blockbusters pose ominous threat

89th Oscars Academy Awards

While much of the shocked reaction to the Academy’s changes to the Oscars focused on the possibility of awards being presented during commercial breaks and the introduction of a Best Popular Film category, there was another big announcement that may change the complexion of the box office: an earlier Oscars airdate.

Starting in 2020, the Academy is planning to move Oscar Sunday out of its late February/early March airdate to the weekend following the Super Bowl on Feb. 9. The Oscar nominations announcement and voting periods will also be moved up into late December and early January, meaning that the period between nomination announcements and the night Best Picture is awarded will now take place in a movie theater landscape that will likely be dominated by popular holiday releases.

And that spells trouble for indie titles looking for an Oscar-buzz boost at the box office.

While the five weeks between nomination day and Oscar Sunday only rarely leave a big mark on the annual box office charts these days — this past year’s Oscar season grosses were the worst in six years. For some of the films nominated, this window of time is essential to their theatrical runs. Take this year’s Best Picture winner, “The Shape of Water,” which made 43 percent of its $63.8 million domestic total in that five-week period between nominations and the big awards show telecast.

But not every film takes part in or needs that Oscar bump period at movie theaters, as seen through recent hits like “The Martian,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and most recently, “Get Out.” But the status of an Oscar nomination can be a huge boost to a film released in December.

“American Sniper,” for example, already had a major draw with conservative audiences with director Clint Eastwood telling the life of U.S. Army sniper Chris Kyle. But its wide release came two days after it received six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, which sent the word of mouth for the film through the roof and helped make it the top domestic release of 2014 with $350 million. “The Revenant,” meanwhile, earned 12 nominations immediately after its $39 million wide opening in mid-January. The following weekend’s revenue dropped just 20 percent (a feat for any film’s second weekend), as the news of the nominations and Leonardo DiCaprio’s chance to finally win an Oscar kept up audience interest.

But imagine if that nomination announcement came early in January or even before New Year’s Day? Studios with contenders hoping for an Oscar bump may find their films’ biggest opportunity for ticket sales pushed into a holiday period dominated by franchises like “Star Wars” and “Jumanji,” both of which will have a presence at the end of 2019.

Based on the reactions of several movie theater owners and studio distribution chiefs who spoke to TheWrap, there is no easy answer at this point. A pair of exhibitor executives who spoke on condition of anonymity said they see this Oscar schedule shift as bad news.

“We may wind up relying on the usual prestige crowd more than ever for business,” said one executive.

Exhibitor Relations analyst Jeff Bock agreed, saying that while the impact of this new Oscar nomination calendar will be different for each contending film, it’s going to be particularly tough for any smaller prestige film like “Shape of Water” that tries to go for a late 2019 release.

“If you’re in charge of the campaign for a potential Oscar contender, you’re really going to have to look hard at this calendar and figure out how you’re going to put it out there against such tough competition,” said Bock. “And this also means that you’re probably going to see fewer Christmas Day prestige releases just because they’ll need to campaign to Academy voters.”

From the start of November through Christmas, 2019 has a murderer’s row of heavily anticipated sequels, starting with “Wonder Woman 1984,” followed the very next weekend by Daniel Craig’s final James Bond movie. Thanksgiving weekend brings “Frozen 2,” the sequel to a $1.27 billion megahit, while December brings a sequel to “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” and “Star Wars: Episode IX.”

For certain films, the new schedule won’t be a problem. Even with the 2020 Oscars still a long way’s away, it’s expected that Greta Gerwig’s upcoming adaptation of “Little Women” will do well at the box office even with its Christmas release against “Star Wars: Episode IX.” Gerwig’s soaring stock after “Lady Bird,” along with a cast featuring Meryl Streep, Timothee Chalamet, Emma Stone and Saoirse Ronan will be an easy draw for prestige audiences.

Another tool against a crowded blockbuster schedule? Topicality. This year, films like “RBG,” “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and the newly released “BlacKkKlansman” have found success this summer even as traditional blockbusters like “Incredibles 2” and “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” have provided mainstream thrills. Their connection to current events allowed them to stand out as must-see films that are now expected to get major awards consideration, as was the case for “Get Out” as it went on to win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

After the release of “BlacKkKlansman” this past weekend, Focus Features distribution head Lisa Bunnell said that with the film’s release being timed for the one-year anniversary of the Charlottesville riots, it has triggered a conversation that she expects will keep the film in strong demand well into September.

“We’re expecting this film to have a lot of legs at the box office,” Focus Features distribution head Lisa Bunnell told TheWrap after the release of “BlacKkKlansman” this past weekend.  “The way people have been talking about it and discussing the relevance of ‘BlacKkKlansman’ to what’s happening today is going to create a lot of long-lasting interest.”