Blockbuster Best Picture nominees: Box office, Oscars TV boost?

This year's group of Best Picture contenders have grossed far more so far at the box office than last year's. Will average moviegoers be more interested in this year's competition?

Aidan Monaghan/20th Century Fox/AP
'The Martian' stars Matt Damon.

While this year’s crop of Best Picture nominees includes lesser-known movies such as “Brooklyn” and “Room,” there’s a good chance the average moviegoer might be aware of many of the films that scored nods.

This year’s list of Best Picture nominees includes such blockbusters as “The Martian,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Bridge of Spies,” and “The Big Short.”

While only one movie – “Martian” – has a place on the list of the top 10 highest-grossing movies of 2015, this year’s best picture nominees have grossed almost three times as much as last year’s nominees had done by the release of nominations, according to the website Box Office Mojo. 

And since so many Best Picture hopefuls are released near the end of the year (perhaps to be uppermost in Oscar voters’ minds when nominees are chosen), some of these movies will no doubt be a big part of the 2016 box office conversation. “The Revenant,” for example, came out in limited release on Dec. 25 but expanded on Jan. 8. Following its expansion, “Revenant” did extremely well and was beaten only by the massive blockbuster “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” placing second for that weekend. 

With the added prestige of a Best Picture nod, some of these movies could have a good performance in the coming weeks. 

If a box office hit pulls ahead in this year’s race, it will be in stark contrast to last year’s battle, when the low-grossing films “Boyhood” and “Birdman” were widely seen as the two contenders for the Best Picture prize. 

While box office hits like “Argo” and “The King’s Speech” have taken the Best Picture title within the last several years, that time frame has also seen some of the lowest-grossing Best Picture winners of all time, including last year’s “Birdman,” 2009’s “The Hurt Locker,” and 2011’s “The Artist.” 

Robert Thompson, professor of pop culture at Syracuse University, notes the presence of blockbusters among this year’s contenders. “You’ve got ‘Mad Max’ and ‘The Martian,’ these big performers,” he says.

He points to the increased number of Best Picture nominees as a reason for more blockbusters getting in. In 2009, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which distributes the Oscars, expanded the field to 10 nominees. There can now be between five and ten. (This year, there are eight.)

Under the old system, “there may not be room for the blockbusters,” Thompson says. 

One reason some moviegoers may be unfamiliar with titles like “Spotlight” or “Brooklyn” is that they come out in limited release and may never even come to certain areas. Thompson says this is all about the finances. “You don’t know the value of a small movie at time of distribution,” he says. 

But he says it’s important to remember that the Oscars aren’t about measuring what movie audiences liked best. “You wouldn’t need the Oscars if you were measuring audience taste,” he says. That’s what box office standings are for. 

And the best movie, the one given the Best Picture title, may not be the most popular. “Nobody was buying Van Goghs,” Thompson says. 

But the Oscars can be valuable because they introduce little-seen movies to the public. “It is a way of bringing people to good films,” Thompson says of the awards.

Those at the Academy are no doubt always interested in viewership numbers for the telecast. A statistic that’s often brought up is that the highest-watched Oscars telecast is still the one in 1998 when “Titanic,” one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, took the Best Picture title. 

It would seem there’s a correlation between people tuning in and them having seen the movies in contention, Thompson says. “You had an awful lot of people who loved that movie,” he says of the “Titanic” ceremony. Viewership may rise “if you’ve got a whole bunch of nominees that people watched and loved.” 

So what are the chances one of these high-grossing movies will go all the way and take Best Picture? 

“I certainly would not rule out that one of these big box office movies could get it,” Thompson says.

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