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The Oscar bounce is a big thud this year

February 17, 2009|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

The movie business is in the midst of a phenomenal roll, with the astounding box-office success of "Friday the 13th" helping propel Hollywood to its biggest three-day Presidents Day weekend of all time. But it was another lackluster weekend for the other movies that are supposed to be in the spotlight at this time of year -- the best picture Oscar nominees. In fact, the whispers you hear everywhere around town are asking the same hushed question: What happened to the fabled Oscar bounce?

The Academy Awards' best picture nominees were announced Jan. 22, an event quickly commemorated by a blitzkrieg of expensive full-page ads in the trades, the New York Times and my newspaper, designed to use the cachet of a best picture nomination to nudge reluctant moviegoers into the theaters. But at a time when the rest of the movie business is booming, the best picture nominees -- with the obvious exception of the crowd-pleasing "Slumdog Millionaire" -- are doing a slow fade. Only one of the five, "The Reader," has made more of its overall box-office take after it earned a best picture nod.

It's no surprise that "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" made the vast majority of its money before the Oscar nominations, since it was always viewed as a mainstream commercial picture, featuring a big Hollywood star, Brad Pitt, and an A-list director, David Fincher. Still, considering how much extra money Paramount has spent pushing "Button" for a best picture win, it's hard to determine whether the Oscars have made any real difference for the film, which grossed $104.3 million before the nominations and only $17.9 million after. Even though "Slumdog" has won virtually every major award known to man, it still made more money ($44.7 million) pre-nominations than after ($41.8 million). Even "Milk," a film that seemed entirely dependent on a lift from the Oscars, actually had its biggest-grossing weekend way back in early December, when it did $2.6 million, a weekend figure it hasn't equaled since.

Here's one perspective on how little the best picture nominations have meant this year: Even without a best picture nod, "Doubt" has out-grossed three of the five best picture nominees, while "Defiance" and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," which barely registered with Oscar voters -- earning one major nomination between them -- have each out-grossed both "The Reader" and "Frost/Nixon." The last film is the most striking commercial failure of the season. Losing more theaters each week, "Frost/Nixon" made a paltry $473,000 this weekend, giving it a total of $16.3 million after 11 weeks in the market, with nearly 60% of its overall gross coming before the Oscar nominations.

One big factor in the Oscar bounce's evaporation has less to do with the Oscars and more to do with the marketplace. January and early February used to be a dumping ground for mainstream movies. But in the first six weeks of this year, the theaters have been full of box-office dynamos. Most observers believe that moviegoing has been spurred by all the depressing economic news; but if so, moviegoers have clearly preferred escapist fare to Oscar pictures, which have found themselves on the margins, for the most part losing theaters every week to higher-performing pictures.

"Slumdog" is really the only movie that you could convincingly argue has been aided by award season, though it has also benefited from Fox Searchlight's shrewd ad campaign. Every time it scooped up another armful of awards, it looked less like a forbidding movie set in grim slums and more like an exotic confection that promised uplift. But it's a sign of how little the best picture nominations have meant this year that the movie that needed them perhaps the most, "Frost/Nixon," simply got no bump at all.

Universal knew it had a challenge on its hands. Even though it earned largely favorable reviews, the film was essentially an obscure media fable.

"Everyone knew going in that, even in the best-case scenario, this was going to be a substantial challenge," Universal marketing chief Adam Fogelson told me recently. "Our hope was that if we could possibly do really well with the Golden Globes, the Oscars and BAFTA [the British film awards], that it would give us enough momentum to really reach a bigger audience. And, of course, every one of those things happened -- except for the momentum part."

I still want to see movies like "Frost/Nixon" get made. But I think Hollywood needs to take a long look at its obsession with Oscardom, since it seems increasingly clear that the awards no longer deliver the guaranteed marketing bounce that smaller films need to find an audience.

In the 1970s, during the glory days of Hollywood, filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman were making movies because they were dying to tell great stories. I'm sure they were just as eager to win an Oscar as anyone, but it wasn't the initial spark that fueled their ambition. Their goal was to connect with an audience. And the best way to do that is to offer a spellbinding vision that captures our imagination, and not to rely on the Oscars, whose bounce these days is as ephemeral as the jolt you get from a double espresso and a jelly doughnut.


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