Your cast have traversed the United States in a seemingly endless gauntlet of interviews and publicity events leading up to its highly-anticipated Thanksgiving weekend release. Critics are praising you, and audiences have been hearing great things from other people who have been talking about hearing great things from people who work in the Weinstein publicity department because they’ve seen the film and they think it’s the best thing that has ever been made, which is handy.
Now your movie is about to hit the theatres, but what does a film’s box office success say about its award chances, if anything? Can a big gross sway Academy voters? And most importantly, how can you use these numbers to bag yourself a shiny little Oscar?
PART VII: THE BOX OFFICE
The financial rewards of a successful Oscar film have been endlessly debated, and it can be shown that a nomination does give a significant benefit to box office takings. As well as being conveniently timed for voters to see, the late release of films is also perhaps a way to cash in on a film which may otherwise struggle to pull in big crowds. This added word of mouth (and free publicity) can certainly help during the campaign between nomination and ceremony, but despite the post-nomination boost at the box office, there is no real correlation between this and the Best Picture winner.
Since 1992, there have only been three Best Picture winners to also top the US box office for their year – Forrest Gump, Titanic, and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King – and the box office ranking of the past ten Best Pictures suggest no pattern whatsoever between box office and the Oscars:
The Artist – 71st
The King’s Speech – 18th
The Hurt Locker – 116th
Slumdog Millionaire – 16th
No Country for Old Men – 36th
The Departed – 15th
Crash – 49th
Million Dollar Baby – 24th
Lord of the Rings: Return of the King – 1st
Chicago – 10th
Only half of these films made the annual top twenty, with two outside the top fifty, and one not even reaching the top hundred. If you were clutching at straws you could say if you make the top twenty you have a solid film that stands a reasonable chance of winning, but this is providing you already have a strong Oscar contender in the first place. However you look at it, if you want to win a major Oscar the box office success does not matter at all.
However, your American period drama is likely to attract the biggest, best, and most distinguished technical crew in Hollywood, and there may just be a link between these less acknowledged categories and the commercial success of your film, particularly the Visual Effects category.
In the annual top five grossing movies since 1992 there are a total of 33 Visual Effects nominees (including 13 winners). So 33% of the five highest grossing movies each year will be nominated for a Visual Effects Oscar, which is very high compared to other categories – only 15% for Best Picture and 20% across all acting categories. There are significantly less total Visual Effects nominees compared to these other two, yet more total nominations from the highest-grossing films. To clarify, over half of all Visual Effects nominees in the last twenty years were also one of the top 5 grossing movies of their year.
What this suggests is not that you are more likely to get a nomination in this category if your film is commercially successful, but that the films with the broadest potential audience (and therefore highest potential ticket sales) are those with the most aesthetic appeal. In other words, the criteria used to determine the Visual Effects nominees overlaps considerably more with the expectations of average cinemagoers than other categories.
To summarise, it won’t hurt to utilise your access to top technical talent and throw some decent effects in there. Perhaps set your film during a period of civil unrest. Lincoln is a film that will no doubt take advantage of its wartime setting with a few captivating visuals. Box office performance does not affect your chances in the major categories, nor does it make your film any likelier to win a technical category. However, the relationship between Visual Effects and box office ranking suggests that if you do well in theatres and entertain the masses, you’re probably doing something right in these areas, and this should be factored in to your imminent Oscar campaign. It’s a win-win situation.
So if you want to win an Oscar, your period drama produced by the Weinsteins, directed by Michel Gondry, composed by Howard Shore, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Amy Adams, Whoopi Goldberg, Richard Gere, Frances McDormand, and Chris O’Dowd released on Thanksgiving weekend should be a visually breathtaking but character-driven story set during the American Revolution.