In Hollywood, the bean counters always talk at this time of year about the “Oscar Bounce” — the boost films get at the box office from Academy Award nominations.
The bounce, which can amount to tens of millions of dollars, is much sought-after by film studios, but their calculus may be altered by recent changes in the industry — especially by the advent of streaming services.
The way the bounce used to work was simple enough. In November 2008, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire — a rags-to-quiz-show-riches film without stars — opened to good reviews, and better-than-expected box office. By Christmastime, the film had expanded from 10 theaters to several hundred, and by mid-January it had earned more than twice the $15 million dollars it cost to make.
Then awards season clicked-in. Slumdog Millionaire earned 10 Oscar nominations including Best Picture, and its box office took flight. By the night of the Academy Awards, when Steven Spielberg opened the envelope for Best Picture, and read out its title, he could have called it Slumdog Hundred-Millionaire.
And by the time the Mumbai dust had cleared worldwide, the little indie that had been headed straight-to-DVD until Fox Searchlight rescued it to show in theaters, had made $377 million dollars — well over two-thirds of that after receiving Oscar’s blessing.
That is the “Oscar Bounce” that prompts movie studios to spend millions of dollars campaigning for the votes of Academy members. Though the Motion Picture Academy has long talked about “honoring excellence,” that “honoring” has been in the service of promoting films from the moment the first statuettes were handed out at a banquet in 1929. And the promotion went global when the awards were first televised in 1953.
Bob Hope was the host for that first telecast, and in his monologue, he addressed the elephant in the room — the notion that this new medium they were all appearing on was competition, but that film still had the upper hand.
“Television,” he said to raucous laughter and applause, “that’s where movies go when they die.”
True enough when TVs were black-and-white and had 12-inch screens. These days, television is where movies go, period. And quickly. Back in the 1950s, it could take years for a film to get from cinemas to TV sets. When Slumdog Millionaire made the trek about a decade ago, it still took many months.
Today, we’re talking weeks or even days. Netflix started streaming both The Irishman and Marriage Story less than a month after they opened theatrically. Its rival Amazon has already put up Parasite, Joker and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which means five of the nine Best Picture nominees are available for home-viewing now, and there’s virtually no way for there to be a box-office Oscar Bounce for any of them.
So why are streaming services spending a fortune on Oscar campaigns? Well, for prestige, of course — to help attract talent, subscribers and investors. Netflix shares moved sharply higher when the streamer drew more nominations from the Academy than any other studio.
Also, unlike conventional movie studios, streaming services have a business model that doesn’t require them to make a profit on individual films. Amazon, for instance, sees streaming content as a value-added bonus that will keep people signed up to purchase things with Amazon Prime. Apple will be delighted if you buy its various devices to get its exclusive content. If you stream Oscar nominees on iTunes, they’ll like that, too.
All of that said, there is some evidence that the streaming strategy of making a film quickly home-viewable, hurts its chances with awards voters. Contenders get the most nominations when they arrive in theaters at year’s end. So Netflix looked smart opening The Irishman and Marriage Story in November. But with super-short theatrical releases, both films were long-gone by the time awards votes were being cast. And in contest after contest — Golden Globes, Critics Choice Awards, Producers Guild Awards, BAFTAs — they’ve been losing out to Parasite and 1917, films that are still in theaters.
For the record, the box-office Oscar bounce still exists for films that manage to hang on at the multiplex. Jojo Rabbit, Little Women and Ford v Ferrari have each made additional millions since the nominations were announced. And the war movie 1917 is doing so well, it feels almost like another Slumdog, exploding at the box office.
With its surprise victory at the Globes, and the 10 Oscar nominations that followed, 1917 went, in just a couple of weeks, from 11 theaters and $2 million dollars … to more than 4,000 theaters and more than $200 million dollars.
If it wins big at the Oscars, it will continue to rake in the cash, just as films did once upon a time … in Hollywood.