The Value of an Oscar Nomination

By Reagen Sulewski

December 8, 2010

Who wants to be a millionaire? All the people who handle awards season Oscars campaigns.

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As we head into awards season, it's useful to think about why studios make such a big deal about the shiny gold statues they hand out every year. It's not the fact that Hollywood homes have a bunch of shelves and they just need something to put on them. It's not even (totally) about ego. The biggest reason they chase after Oscar nominations is, shockingly, money.

For many films, awards recognition, and particularly an Oscar nomination, is one of the surest ways to improve their bottom line. While people may scoff at the actual winners sometimes, the awards serve as a handy way for casual movie goers, and even hardcore buffs, to sort out what's supposed to be good each year. Instantly when the list of five (now ten) Best Picture nominations come out, those films for the most part become more commercially viable as people decide they need to see them to have an opinion on them or simply because they serve as a recommendation.

Often it can be the difference between a film staying in theaters or getting booted from them. A Best Picture nomination, or a couple of high profile acting nominations, can serve as the springboard for a tiny indie film getting placed in thousands of theaters, for better or for worse. Not getting one when you were expecting one cuts you off at the knees. Last year, films such as The Lovely Bones, Invictus and The Road missed out on many of the nominations that were expected for them and died on the box office vine. Meanwhile, films like An Education and Crazy Heart racked up millions by exceeding awards expectations.

So what are these nominations worth, then?

It's a fair point to ask whether a film's box office is raised simply from being in consideration for an Oscar nomination, even if they don't get it. I'd say that's almost indisputably true, but basically incalculable and it's not what we're really interested in. It's the value of that chyron over the TV ad boasting about a film being selected as one of the best of the year that I'm interested in.


Sometimes the effect for a film is rather obvious. American Beauty was re-released into theaters solely to capitalize on being nominated. Without those extra weeks at the box office, it misses out on the $56 million extra it earned. Examples are rarely this clear-cut, however.

The biggest thing to realize about Oscar nominations with regards to box office is that their main value results in getting people to a movie they ordinarily wouldn't have seen. So let's get some exceptions out of the way. When an Oscar nominated film is already a hit, there's often a counter-intuitively smaller jump in a film's bottom line than for a film that has yet to break out. The two clearest examples of this are James Cameron's last two films, Titanic and Avatar. Both showed unusual legs for their time period, but their gains from their Oscar nominations are probably impossible to sort out, if they even exist. Avatar's box office even dropped more in the weekend after it was nominated than the weekend before.

But these are extreme exceptions in that they earned more than $20 million in those weekends anyway, an extremely high figure for the typical Oscar nominated film in its weekend of nomination, and were firmly entrenched in the pop culture landscape, with over $300 and $600 million in the bank respectively. People who needed validation by the Academy to see Titanic or Avatar weren't really paying attention.

On the other end of things is when a studio is so small that it doesn't have the ability to pay for prints and advertising for a film when it is recognized. Last year's The Messenger received two significant nominations – for its screenplay and Woody Harrelson for Best Supporting Actor, but never got above 34 locations. The film's distributor, Oscilloscope Pictures, specializes in boutique releases, and has never exhibited a film in more than 40 venues in one weekend. The Messenger's $1.1 million final gross is the highest grossing film in its four year history. The value of those nominations, at least in terms of theatrical box office, was so close to zero as to be unmeasurable, because the studio didn't have the ability, or maybe even the desire to get its film seen in theaters.

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