Within the last decade, a movie nominated for Best Picture could expect to see its grosses rise as much as 50 or 60 percent at the domestic box office during the month between the nomination announcement and the Academy Awards ceremony, and maybe another 20 or 30 percent after the trophies are handed out. That's a lot less likely today.
In 2010 and 2011, the years that the slate expanded from five films to 10, the Best Picture nominees saw an average boost of just 10 percent in the weeks after the nominations and just 3 percent after the Oscar show. This year, with nine movies on the list, the prospects for a lucrative Oscar bounce look similarly dim.
In part, that's because the list isn't confined to movies that opened in December. Most of the nominees have already all but played out their theatrical lives and some have already been released on DVD (though, incredibly, eight of the nine are still screening in at least a handful of theaters, with "The Tree of Life" the only one not still showing on a big screen somewhere).
Much has been made of how few blockbusters there are among the nominees this year. "The Help" is the only Best Picture contender that's earned more than $100 million, and "War Horse" is the only one among the rest that has a shot of crossing that line (it has earned about $73 million to date). There's no "Toy Story 3" or "Avatar" on this year's list, though neither of those movies benefited from Oscar attention anyway. ("Toy Story" was already out of theaters, and "Avatar" would have steamrollered everything in its path even if it hadn't been nominated for a single trophy.)
Some movies are poised to take advantage of their nominations. Chief among them are "The Artist," "The Descendants," and "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close." "The Artist" tripled its run to 662 theaters last weekend after its Golden Globe victories; to date, it has earned $12.7 million at the box office. It's likely to see the greatest bounce, percentage-wise, since it has nowhere to go but up. Admittedly, it'll be a tough trek, since modern audiences aren't easily sold on a silent, black-and-white movie with French lead actors, but the film is a crowd-pleaser with strong word-of-mouth and, now, Oscar momentum. It already saw a spike in pre-sales on Fandango in the hours after Tuesday's nomination announcement. And if anyone knows how to capitalize on a tricky film's Oscar love, it's Harvey Weinstein, whose Weinstein Company turned an R-rated movie about a British monarch with a speech impediment into a huge hit at Oscar time last year. It should at least double its current take by the time the awards are handed out on Feb. 26.
"Descendants," which opened in November, was nearly spent at theaters before Tuesday, having earned $51.7 million. This weekend, however, it'll nearly quadruple its run, to 1,900 venues. It too has seen a spike on Fandango. In the short term, the expansion should be worth another $10 million or so.
"Extremely Loud" is also a tough sell, given its grim subject matter (a boy who loses his father in the 9/11 attacks) and polarizing reviews. But its expansion to 2,630 screens last weekend brought a windfall of about $12 million. The film's upward momentum should continue for at least another couple of weekends, which should be worth perhaps another $20 million.
Also poised to expand is "Hugo," which, like "The Descendants," opened in November and was nearly played out by the time the nominations arrived. Its run is expanding this weekend by about 50 percent, to 944 screens. That may be good for only another $6 million or so, but its backers are taking consolation in the notion that Oscar buzz could still earn the movie more money overseas, where it has only begun to roll out. (Same with "The Descendants.")
As far as the other Best Picture nominees are concerned, "Moneyball," "Midnight in Paris," and "The Help" are playing in just 10 or 20 theaters each, so they'll see virtually no Oscar bounce, and they'll bring down the average for the list. "War Horse" will continue to coast on its own energy.
Best Picture contenders aren't the only movies poised to take advantage of their nominations. Best Animated Feature nominee "Rango," out of theaters since last summer, will get a modest re-release. "Albert Nobbs," whose three nominations include two acting nods, for Glenn Close and Janet McTeer, had a token opening in December to qualify for awards, but this weekend, it'll open for real in 246 theaters.
Some of the movies that need the most help are those with acting nominations but not Best Picture nods, including "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," and "My Week With Marilyn." Gary Oldman's spy thriller has earned a modest $18.7 million to date and is playing on 731 screens, while Michelle Williams' turn as Marilyn Monroe has earned $12.2 million and is playing on just 225 screens. So far, no expansion plans have been announced for either film.
On the other hand, Best Actress nominees "The Iron Lady" and "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" had been top 10 box office hits before the Oscar nominations. Not much more can be done for Meryl Streep's Margaret Thatcher biopic, which has earned $13.5 million and is already playing on 1,076 screens, or for Rooney Mara's "Dragon Tattoo," which is playing on nearly 2,000 screens and is likely to cross the $100 million mark in the next week or so.
Such nominated movies as "Bridesmaids," "The Ides of March," and surprise acting nominees "Warrior" and "A Better Life" aren't in theaters any longer, but they could still convert Oscar buzz into extra revenue on home video.