Oscar gold fails to translate to cash this time
LOS ANGELES—It's a common complaint among movie fans -- that the Academy Awards honors films no one has seen.
Not quite right, but closer to the mark this year than most.
For the first time in the three years since Oscar organizers expanded the best-picture category to more than five films, there's not a single blockbuster in the running. Billion-dollar worldwide hits such as "Avatar" and "Toy Story 3" have been in the best-picture mix the last two years, along with such huge smashes as "Up," "Inception" and "The Blind Side."
The only contender this time that has made it to the $100 million mark domestically is the Deep South tale "The Help" at $169.7 million -- big business for a drama with a heavily female audience.
But the rest of the best-picture lineup ranges from a slim $13.3 million domestically for the family drama "The Tree of Life" to a modest $78.8 million for the World War I saga "War Horse" -- one of the smallest audiences ever for a film from blockbuster maestro Steven Spielberg.
It's not just studio bottom lines that are affected when Oscar films fail to catch fire at the box office. The Oscar show itself can suffer, since bigger TV audiences tend to tune in when enormous hits such as "Titanic" or "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" are in the thick of the awards race.
As of last weekend, the domestic haul for this season's nine best-picture nominees totaled $595.6 million, according to box-office tracker Hollywood.com. That's less than half the business done by the 10 nominees a year ago and about a third of the revenues for the 10 contenders two years ago (the Oscars have only nine nominees this time because of a rule change requiring that films receive a certain percentage of first-place votes).
The big hits of 2011 -- "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2," "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn -- Part 1," "The Hangover Part II" -- just were not best-picture material.
"I think there is a disconnect, but then I think there's supposed to be a disconnect. It's not about what are the most popular films. It's the films deemed by the voting body to be the best pictures of the year," said Hollywood.com analyst Paul Dergarabedian. "Often times, what the academy thinks is a great movie isn't a movie a general audience wants to see."
Only four times in the last 30 years has the year's top-grossing film won best picture at the Oscars -- 1988's "Rain Man," 1994's "Forrest Gump," 1997's "Titanic" and 2003's "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King."
"The Hurt Locker" -- domestic gross just $17 million -- won best picture two years ago over "Avatar," which pulled in $760 million domestically and $2.8 billion worldwide.
Critical acclaim and commercial success merged last year as "The King's Speech" was crowned best picture, the Oscar attention helping it to a domestic take of $138.8 million, a fortune for an old-fashioned period drama.
Most of "The King's Speech" riches came after Oscar nominations were announced, the film packing in audiences in the wake of all the awards buzz.
That's often been the great value of Oscar nominations for films that lack big marketing budgets. But this season, that usual bump at the box office has lost much of its bounce.
George Clooney's family drama "The Descendants" fared the best, pulling in $24.3 million domestically since the nominations Jan. 24 to raise its total through last weekend to $75.6 million.
"We still have a movie out there that's in release, and we want to get people to see it," "Descendants" producer Jim Burke said on nominations morning. "Frankly, these nominations help in that cause. We make what we call human films, and it requires word of mouth and people telling others to see it and critical response and audience reaction. It all helps. It all helps a lot."
The silent film "The Artist," which has 10 nominations and is favored to win best picture, would be one of the lowest-grossing winners ever, with $28.1 million through last weekend. The Oscar attention certainly has helped, though. A bit more than half of its box-office cash has come in since the nominations.
Martin Scorsese's Paris adventure "Hugo," which leads with 11 nominations, has had a so-so commercial run, padding its domestic dollars to $67.3 million, up $11.4 million since nominations day. Yet it has a timeless appeal that could keep it alive on video for the long haul.
"It seems to be a picture that plays to the entire family and plays for different ages," Scorsese said. "It might have a life more than a year or two. Maybe in the future people will still see it and get more out of it as they grow older."
That's a key purpose of the Oscars -- calling attention to films that deserve to live on for years to come, rather than those that put up big numbers over opening weekend.
Oscar attention can make all the difference for tiny films such as the Irish drama "Albert Nobbs," which went into general release the weekend after the nominations and has pulled in $2.4 million since, largely on the strength of acting honors for Glenn Close and Janet McTeer.
"We did this little film for love and almost no money, and now we're here walking up red carpets," McTeer said. "It means that more people are likely to see the film. When you've done a film for the love of the beast, it's very, very exciting. It's wonderful that more people might go and see it. That's why we do it, isn't it?"
Associated Press Entertainment Writers Derrik J. Lang and Anthony McCartney contributed to this report.