The Oscar box office bump fueled some of the Best Picture nominees still in theaters this weekend after being virtually nonexistent a year ago. But the results are still a far cry from what the specialty market saw prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Leading the field of nominated films was Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Poor Things,” which Searchlight Pictures expanded by 900 theaters to 2,300 locations after it was nominated for 11 Academy Awards. The erotically charged sci-fi film added $3 million, edging out the $2.95 million it grossed on New Year’s weekend to earn the best weekend gross of its run.
By comparison, Lanthimos’ last film, “The Favourite,” grossed $2.5 million in late January 2019 after it was nominated for Best Picture, though it had a smaller theater count than “Poor Things” at 1,540 locations. “The Favourite” went on to gross $34.3 million in North America, a total “Poor Things” could come close to matching with a running domestic total of $24.7 million.
The other nominee to get a notable bump was Amazon MGM’s “American Fiction,” which grossed $2.9 million after doubling its theater count to 1,702 locations. Amazon MGM has targeted the release of Cord Jefferson’s satire towards audiences in bigger cities that might take to its riff on Black narratives in media and how they are often made to appeal to white audiences.
For the rest of the field, the bump was smaller. A24’s haunting Holocaust film “The Zone of Interest,” which got a limited release last month, expanded to 313 theaters and made $1 million this weekend, as did Universal’s smash summer hit “Oppenheimer” in a limited engagement IMAX re-release. Focus Features’ “The Holdovers,” which is streaming on Peacock, returned to 1,267 theaters and grossed only about $520,000.
To be fair, comparisons to past Oscar seasons will always be inexact. How much theaters benefit from awards buzz in January and February varies depending on the types of films being nominated and the release strategy each film gets.
Obviously a film released in the summer and already on streaming, like the chart-topper “Barbie” or A24’s “Past Lives,” won’t make the charts. To do so would take a spring/summer release with a lot of mass appeal that a substantial amount of moviegoers may have missed in its initial run, like last year’s Best Picture winner “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” which added a decent $7.2 million post-nomination after making nearly $70 million in its initial theatrical run in spring 2022.
But as we noted this past week, the pandemic has drastically changed the game for the specialty market. With most movies hitting home platforms faster than before 2020, the ecosystem that allowed Best Picture winners like “The Shape of Water,” “Moonlight” and “Parasite” to steadily build word of mouth through the last quarter of the calendar year and sustain that into the first quarter of the following year is all but gone, as demonstrated by the arrival of “The Holdovers” on streaming two months after its late October limited release.
It’s then little wonder that “Poor Things” and “American Fiction” got the biggest bump as they both got their initial release in December. “Zone of Interest,” as a non-English film tackling the genocide of Jews, was always going to have its bump limited despite also being a December release. But “Poor Things” and “American Fiction” have enough levity, humor, and memorable performances to attract audiences looking for grown-up fare who had not heard of these titles prior to their Oscar nominations.
The question now is whether that bump will have any sort of staying power, or if it will quickly subside given the diminished interest in the Oscars compared to even five years ago. Comscore analyst Paul Dergarabedian believes its more likely that the numbers for “Poor Things” and “American Fiction” will fall off, but thinks there’s still a chance that the lack of major tentpole films in February may allow word-of-mouth for these awards contenders to linger.
“There are films coming out next month like ‘Argylle’ and ‘Bob Marley,’ but nothing that will be a huge tentpole until ‘Dune: Part Two’ in March,” he said. “We’ve seen specialty films that provide audiences something different leg out when major studio releases aren’t competing, and that might be the case for these Oscar nominees.”
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