It doesn't always work that way, of course. Attempts in recent years to bring the Oscars more in line with the box office (notably, expanding the Best Picture field from five to as many as 10 nominees) have largely failed to deliver bigger ticket sales for the winners while also failing to make a populist case for the Academy. This year, however, an even simpler Academy rule change -- moving the date of the announcement of the nominations a few days earlier -- has paid big dividends. Not only did the Academy happen to recognize several hit films among this year's Best Picture nominees, but it helped make almost all of them into much bigger hits.
Collectively, this year's nine nominees have earned more than $323 million since the nominations were announced on Jan. 10. Six of the nominees (a record number) have earned more than $100 million each. ("Zero Dark Thirty," whose current total stands at $91.6 million, will become the seventh. The outliers are "Beasts of the Southern Wild," with $12.4 million to date, and "Amour," with $5.2 million, pretty good for a foreign-language movie about watching a loved one wither and die.) Three of the nominees, "ZDT," "Amour," and "Silver Linings Playbook," have earned the majority of their totals since the Jan. 10 announcement. Even "Beasts," which opened last summer and was essentially finished theatrically well before January, has been able to benefit a little from its nomination, thanks to a theatrical re-release. For perhaps the first time, all nine contenders are still playing to paying audiences in theaters at the time of Sunday's awards ceremony.
Before it was nominated, "ZDT" had earned $5.2 million; it's earned another $86.4 million since. "SLP" had earned $35.7 million before the nominations; afterward, it earned an additional $71.8 million. Even "Lincoln" -- at $178.6 million, the top domestic earner among the nominees -- has pulled in $33.1 million of its total since it was nominated. "Argo" has been playing steadily for five months, for a total of $129.8 million so far, $19.5 million of that since the nominations. And those are just the North American numbers. All of the Best Picture candidates (save perhaps "Beasts") have done well overseas as well, with "Django Unchained," "Amour," "Life of Pi," and "Les Miserables" doing even better in foreign territories than they've done here.
Just this weekend, the Best Picture contenders earned a total of about $16 million (again, pretty good considering that they've all been playing for two months or more). "SLP" was the one most moviegoers wanted to see; it earned $6.1 million, according to studio estimates, and came in seventh overall on the box office chart. "ZDT" came in at No. 11 with an estimated $2.3 million. Not far behind were "Argo" ($2.0 million), "Life of Pi" ($1.6 million), "Lincoln" ($1.5 million), and "Django" ($1.0 million).
In other words, even more than six weeks after the announcement, these films are still drumming up interest among moviegoers, with enough wealth for everyone to get a taste. That's a far cry from recent years, which saw the Academy honor low-grossing films while trying to pay lip service to big hits. Remember, in 2009, after "The Dark Knight" failed to secure a nomination, the Academy expanded the Best Picture category to 10 titles, under the presumption that a larger playing field would make room for more populist flicks that still had merit. The following winter, "Avatar," the biggest box office hit in history, did score a nod, but it lost to "The Hurt Locker," a movie that topped out at $17 million at the box office, making it the lowest-grossing Best Picture winner ever. Two years later, "The Artist" led a weak field and won Best Picture but grossed just $45 million.
This year, it was thought early on that intelligent, well-wrought blockbusters like "The Dark Knight Rises," "The Avengers," and "Skyfall" might make the Best Picture cut. They did not, and yet the Academy managed to find movies that were either already popular ("Argo," "Lincoln," "Django") or soon would be, thanks in part to its own endorsement. What changed?
The biggest change involved moving up the nomination date. In part, that was done to upstage the Golden Globes and other awards shows that had begun to steal the Academy's thunder by cluttering up the calendar between the winter holidays and the Oscars. But the change also lengthened the nomination season by 12 days, giving movies more time to become box office hits by the time the Feb. 24 ceremony rolled around.
It's a tricky dance the Academy has tried to teach itself, balancing between merit and popularity (or, if you prefer, between art and commerce). The perception that the Oscars are based primarily on merit is what makes them special; otherwise, they'd be the People's Choice Awards. On the other hand, if the Academy avoids picking popular favorites, it risks losing its audience for the awards ceremony, a trend that's been worsening over the last 20 years or so. If viewers don't have a rooting interest in at least some of the movies up for honors, they won't watch the show. Ratings rise when a huge movie like "Titanic" or "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" is poised for a sweep, but they dip in leaner years. If recent attempts to put a thumb on the scale have backfired, the Academy seemed to find the right balance this year, picking good movies that were hits (not hits that were good movies). Even better, the Academy helped turn some good movies into hits by giving them enough time to grow in popularity.
In fact, the irony of the long nomination season is that the trophy-winning movies in the top categories won't see as big a bounce from their wins as they might have because they're that much further along in their theatrical runs. At the box office, at least, the nomination will turn out to have been the real prize, not the statuette.