THE predictable pronouncement by likely Academy Award losers -- that the real honor is the nomination, not the Oscar itself -- is about as credible as anyone's saying they can't wait for the next "Harold & Kumar" movie. But when it comes to box office returns, an Oscar nomination is indeed far more valuable than taking home the top trophy.
With the studios and their specialized film divisions spending tens of millions of dollars on award campaigns, it's natural to assume the holy grail is the Oscar statuette. It's an attractive myth, and one that gets a lot of media attention. If only it were still true.
Though the little gold man is an imposing addition to any bookcase and briefly slakes the unquenchable vanity of filmmakers, producers and studio executives, its effect on a film's ultimate profitability is routinely negligible. In some cases, an over-the-top campaign -- "Good Night, and Good Luck" being an excellent recent example -- can actually slash a film's profitability.
Any "Oscar bump," in other words, translates into more prestige and ego boost than a box office bonus. Among this year's best picture nominees, only one movie, "There Will Be Blood," clearly stands to benefit at the multiplex were it to win the top prize, because its theatrical release could still build.
The reason has less to do with the prestige of the Oscars than the timing of the ceremony itself and the increasingly short theatrical life almost all movies enjoy. Academy Award eligibility is governed by release dates, and, even with the Oscar ceremony now in February instead of March, movies released in late 2007 have been in theaters for two months or more -- an eternity compared with many films -- by the time the awards are handed out.
If a movie is in the midst of a slowly building national release when the nominations are revealed in late January -- the case with "Million Dollar Baby" -- the benefits of both prominent nominations and a best picture triumph can be enormous. But most films in this year's best picture race have little room to grow theatrically, meaning most additional Oscar returns will come through increased DVD sales.
Over the last four years, all but one best picture winner has bagged the lion's share of its ticket sales well before the Academy Award telecast. In 2004, "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" had grossed more than $337.8 million when the nominations were announced and $364.1 million by the time it collected the best picture Oscar. After the win, "The Return of the King" grossed less than $13 million more, or just 3.4% of its total theatrical haul.
A year later, though, "Million Dollar Baby" had sold just $8.3 million in tickets and was only in 147 theaters when Oscar nominations came out. In the five weekends after the nominations and before it won the best picture Academy Award, the Clint Eastwood movie shifted into wide release and grossed $56.6 million more. After grabbing the best picture trophy, "Million Dollar Baby" took in an additional $35.6 million. More than 90% of "Million Dollar Baby's" receipts, to put it another way, followed the nominations.
"With our movie, we had a much bigger impact" from the nomination and best picture win, says Tom Rosenberg, the Oscar-winning producer of "Million Dollar Baby." "There's nothing better than that."
In the following years, though, the Oscars meant little to a winning film's overall performance. "Crash," released in May 2005, wasn't even in theaters when nominations came out. A brief return to theaters after it won the best picture honor brought in about $1 million more.
In last year's Oscars, "The Departed" had grossed $121.7 million by the time nominations were revealed and $131.8 million when it won the top Academy Award. Just 9% of the film's ultimate $133.3-million gross, in other words, came after the nominations.
"We actually put some more prints of the film in theaters when we got nominated, but it had had its run," says "Departed" producer Graham King, who says award attention was dramatically more material to the bottom lines of his "Gangs of New York" and "The Aviator." "With 'The Departed,' it was all about the timing of the release. The film opened in October." All the same, the Oscar win undoubtedly helped sell more "Departed" DVDs, King says.
To find a consistent pattern of movies whose fortunes were changed by the Oscars, you have to travel back to the 1990s, an era when movies could stay in theaters for months rather than the current model of weeks.
Playing in only seven theaters when it was nominated for the best picture Oscar it would eventually win, 1999's "American Beauty" added more than $55 million to its total gross after the nominations and Oscars, according to the box office tracking firm Media by Numbers.
In 1993, "The Crying Game" had grossed less than $20 million before the nominations were announced. The winner for original screenplay ultimately sold $62.6 million in tickets.