erik lundegaard

Oscar B.O.: It's the Distribution, Stupid

So “Unknown,” with 58-year-old Liam Neeson in the lead, took the top weekend spot from a bunch of kids in “I Am Number Four.” Final estimates: $21.7m vs. $19.5m. Through Sunday.

The bigger news is that two Oscar contenders, “Black Swan” and “The King's Speech,” each passed the $100 million dollar mark, while “True Grit,” despite losing 607 theaters, grossed enough to pass “Grown Ups” and “Clash of the Titans” for 13th place on the 2010 box office chart. Its current gross: $164 million. Wow.

I wrote about the surprising box-office success of best-picture nominees a few weeks ago (“Are Best Picture Nominees Making a Comeback?”), and Patrick Goldstein finally got off the schnied to write about it last week (“The Oscar box office mystery: What brought adult moviegoers back to the theaters?”); but even with his L.A. Times access, he's not asking the right questions; or maybe he's just not getting the right answers.

Why is this happening? Here's an easy answer: It's the distribution, Stupid.

For most of the 2000s, certainly in the second half of the 2000s, Oscar pictures barely got seen because they barely got distributed.

In 2005, one only of the best picture nominees, “Brokeback Mountain,” was distributed into more than 2,000 theaters, and that high point lasted exactly one week.

Things have gotten better since.

In 2006, one picture, “The Departed,” was distributed into more than 2,000 theaters, for a total of six weeks.

In 2007, three pictures, “Juno,” “No Country for Old Men,” and “Michael Clayton,” were thus distributed, for a total of 10 weeks.

In 2008, two pictures, “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Benjamin Button,” for a total of 11 weeks.

In 2009, among the best director nominees—the best correlation to five best picture nominees we now have—three pics (“Avatar,” “Inglourious Basterds” and “Up in the Air”) were in 2,000+ theaters for a total of 19 weeks, but that was mostly “Avatar.”

2010? All five nominees have been distributed into more than 2,000 theaters for a total of 27 weeks. And counting. (“The King's Speech” is currently at 2,086, but I wouldn't be surprised if it dipped below 2,000 next week.)

Some may say, “Well, sure. Movies in general get wider distribution now.” Yes and no. In 2005, 109 of the movies released during the year were distributed into more than 2,000 theaters. By 2008, it was 123 movies. In 2010? Only 121 movies.

No, these best picture/best director movies are getting wider distribution, and sooner in their runs, less from historical trends than because each is perceived to have box office potential.

But this only raises the deeper question: Studios, movies or audience? Are the studios reawakening to the box office potential of Oscar films and getting them out there? Or are these particular movies somehow more distributable/more appealing than the nominees five years ago? Or is the audience for such pictures simply there in a way they weren't five years ago?

And that's just the start.

Why is “The King's Speech” more than doubling “The Queen”'s box office take from four years ago?

How did “Black Swan” get to $100 million? A claustrophobic, paranoiac, Darren Aranofsky film about ballet? Is it that Fox Searchlight can distribute and market anything? Or is “Black Swan” less about ballet than about the cattiness and competition of girls, and thus has that B-movie “Single White Female” appeal?

Oddly, the one of the five movies that seemed to have the best shot at boffo box office, “The Fighter,” an uplifting underdog story starring a pumped-up leading man and a slimmed-down superhero, is doing the least well of the five. Find me somebody who predicted that in November.

Chart below.

No. of weeks best picture nominees were distributed
into more than 1,000 or 2,000 theaters: 2005-2010

The distribution of best picture nominees: 2005-2010


Posted at 08:24 AM on Mon. Feb 21, 2011 in category Movies - Box Office  
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