What’s an Oscar Worth at the Box Office?

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Is winning a coveted Academy Award a priceless experience? Come on, this is Hollywood. Movie studios don’t tailor their release schedules around Oscar season and pour money into Oscar-bait films just for that warm, fuzzy feeling of a job well done. They’re hoping that having a film, director or actor take home a golden statuette will boost a movie’s box-office returns.

In the right circumstances, a Best Picture victory can add tens of millions of dollars to a film’s final gross. A statistical analysis by the film blog BoxOfficeQuant of Best Picture winners from 1990 to 2009 found that a typical winning movie gains an additional $14 million in box-office returns compared with a movie that merely receives a Best Picture nomination.

But not all Oscar winners are created equal. Leveraging an Oscar win into bonus box-office dollars requires a confluence of factors, the primary one being the timing of a release. Movie studios cram all their most prestigious films into December or January so that if a film nets a big award, curious movie fans will still be able to see it at the local theater. Slumdog Millionaire, which had a wide release just a month before the 2009 Academy Awards, saw its revenue jump 43% the weekend after winning Best Picture. On the other hand, 2010 Best Picture The Hurt Locker was originally released in July 2009 and saw little box-office movement because it was already available on DVD when it won.

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It’s also important that a winning film have the potential to appeal to a mass audience. Slumdog offered Americans a window into the world of Indian Bollywood movies and featured pop culture references as varied as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and M.I.A.’s song “Paper Planes,” so it was bound to resonate with moviegoers. IMDB managing editor Keith Simanton says the Best Picture winners that manage a big boost are those that pique the curiosity of the award show’s viewers. “You haven’t caught it, and now it’s got this seal of approval on it as well,” he says. Schindler’s List, Million Dollar Baby and Platoon are among other Best Picture winners that got a big post-Oscar boost, according to an analysis by CNBC. 

Other Oscar categories are not as clearly tied to box-office success. According to the BoxOfficeQuant data, a Best Director win can tack on an extra $11 million in revenue. However, Best Actress is worth $2.3 million in extra gross and Best Actor is worth only slightly more than $1 million. The Best Supporting Actor and Actress Oscars essentially have zero box-office impact. Technical categories, such as Best Editing and Best Art Direction, are also correlated with boosts of $10 million or more, but that’s probably attributable to the fact that the films that win those awards are usually high-grossing blockbusters like The Lord of the Rings or The Matrix.

For the actors who gain Oscars for their individual efforts, there’s probably a greater concern for how the win will affect their personal bottom line instead of the movie studio’s. Unfortunately, the red carpet is littered with Best Actors and Best Actresses who weren’t able to use their Academy-approved talent to consistently nab more-lucrative roles. “It doesn’t guarantee that you make a bigger paycheck,” Simanton says. “If your next movie’s a flop, they’ve completely forgotten.”

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This year, Simanton says, the romantic comedy Silver Linings Playbook is best positioned to get a big boost from an Oscar win. The movie got a wider release after earning the Best Picture nomination but still doesn’t have the mainstream recognition of a Lincoln or an Argo. A win might get movie fans off their couches after the show and into the theater. Says Simanton, “The people who are on the bubble haven’t seen it yet, this pushes them forward.”