With Box Office Hits Like ‘Barbie’ and ‘Oppenheimer,’ Will Oscar Ratings Get a Boost?

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“Barbenheimer” may be the gift that keeps on giving.

After Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” and Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” ignited the summer box office, the blockbusters with twin release dates are bringing populist energy to the Oscars. Yet the one-two punch of “Barbie” ($1.445 billion globally) and “Oppenheimer” ($957 million), along with a valiant assist from Martin Scorsese’s crime epic “Killers of the Flower Moon” ($156 million), can’t compete with the box office power of last year’s contenders.

Led by “Avatar: The Way of Water” ($2.3 billion) and “Top Gun: Maverick” ($1.5 billion), the 10 films up for best picture in 2023 were collectively the highest grossing in more than a decade, racking up $4.4 billion worldwide. This year’s candidates for the top prize were still widely seen, with a combined $2.7 billion globally to date. But these impressive hauls are considered outliers and stand in dramatic contrast to Oscars of yore, where there hasn’t been much overlap between box office hits and nominees.

“It’s a very strong year by any standard,” says David A. Gross of movie consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research. “What is impressive is the range of films — different points of view, different languages, different cultures. It’s a positive reflection on the industry and the Academy.”

It should be noted that assessing the box office popularity of best picture nominees has changed since 2009, the year the category expanded from five to 10 contenders. The goal, then-Academy president Sidney Ganis said, was to bring recognition to “fantastic movies that often show up in the other Oscar categories but have been squeezed out of the race for the top prize.” As a result, commercial offerings have been more regularly recognized alongside art-house fare.

Traditionally, films that seem like Oscar bait are released in the final months of the year and enjoy a boost in ticket sales once nominations are announced. But Hollywood’s evolving release calendar means that decorated movies like “Oppenheimer” and “Barbie,” which debuted last July, have been long gone from marquees.

Streaming adds another wrinkle in evaluating the impact of Academy nods. “Maestro,” directed by and starring Bradley Cooper as famed composer Leonard Bernstein, was distributed by Netflix, which doesn’t put its movies on the big screen, so it’s impossible to gauge its popularity. Its strategy runs counter to that of rival Apple, which spent heavily to debut “Killers of the Flower Moon” and Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon” in theaters.

After scoring 11 nods, Yorgos Lanthimos’ offbeat comedy “Poor Things” cracked the top 10 on domestic charts with $3 million from 2,300 theaters, a 36% jump from its prior outing. It’s added $30 million globally since nominations morning and stands as one of the year’s most successful arthouse movies, with $81 million worldwide so far.

“It will continue to do solid business between now and the Academy Awards,” predicts Gross.

That’s followed on the indie front by Alexander Payne’s 1970s-set character study “The Holdovers” ($36 million), Justine Triet’s courtroom thriller “Anatomy of a Fall” ($26.8 million) and Celine Song’s wistful romantic drama “Past Lives” ($23.6 million). Surpassing the $20 million mark is practically a triumph in this post-COVID box office era, where movies that appeal to older audiences have struggled to connect. There’s hope in Hollywood that some gold hardware during the March telecast will drive up those tallies. “Barbenheimer” has little to gain (financially speaking), but the specialty sector could certainly use the attention.

“These awards are about making sure art-house films are seen and heard in theaters,” box office analyst Jeff Bock of Exhibitor Relations says. “It’s important with films like ‘Poor Things’ and ‘The Zone of Interest,’ in terms of getting people into seats. If they didn’t get award [nominations], you’d blink and miss their releases.”

Not all art-house contenders have become box office darlings. In this rough time for independent cinema, Cord Jefferson’s acclaimed literary satire “American Fiction” just managed to hit the $15 million mark worldwide. Jonathan Glazer’s haunting Holocaust portrait “The Zone of Interest” ($9 million) isn’t exactly a smash hit either. A victory for any of those indie films would rank it as the lowest-grossing best picture winner ever.

“Oppenheimer,” which pundits have crowned as this year’s frontrunner, would however be the highest-grossing winner in two decades, since 2003’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” ($1.2 billion). While the Daniels’ zany comedy “Everything Everywhere All at Once” became the first indie since the pandemic to clear $100 million globally, recent winners like Siân Heder’s dramedy “CODA,” Chloé Zhao’s sweeping Western “Nomadland” and Barry Jenkins’ searing coming-of-age story “Moonlight” had a smaller pop-cultural footprint.

Though historically, some of the more watched ceremonies have featured blockbuster winners like “Titanic,” with an estimated 87.5 million viewers, box office dollars don’t necessarily correlate with Academy Awards or telecast ratings. But Oscar producers are encouraged that beloved and widely seen movies will be vying for Hollywood’s top honors. Ideally, audiences will be more motivated to tune in to a ceremony celebrating films they’ve heard of.

“In terms of potential broadcast ratings for the telecast, the ‘Barbenheimer’ phenomenon may inspire a greater-than-typical interest,” says senior Comscore analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “And,” he teases, referring to the perceived snubs of Gerwig for best director and Margot Robbie for best actress, “a bit of controversy doesn’t hurt either.”

Box office tallies for best picture nominees:

“American Fiction”
Opening weekend: $227,000 from seven theaters ($32,411 per screen)
Domestic box office: $16.4 million
Global box office: $16.9 million

“Anatomy of a Fall”
Opening weekend: $125,377 from five theaters ($25,075 per screen)
Domestic box office: $4.5 million
Global box office: $26.8 million

“Barbie”
Opening weekend: $162 million
Domestic box office: $636 million
Global box office: $1.445 billion

“The Holdovers”
Opening weekend: $211,093 from six theaters ($35,182 per screen)
Domestic box office: $19.8 million
Global box office: $36.1 million

“Killers of the Flower Moon”
Opening weekend: $32.2 million
Domestic box office: $67.6 million
Global box office: $156.6 million

“Maestro”
Opening weekend: N/A
Domestic box office: N/A
Global box office: N/A

“Oppenheimer”
Opening weekend: $82.4 million in July
Domestic box office: $328 million
Global box office: $954 million

“Past Lives”
Opening weekend: $232,266 from four theaters ($58,066 per screen)
Domestic box office: $10.9 million
Global box office: $23.6 million

“Poor Things”
Opening weekend: $661,230 from nine theaters ($73,470 per screen)
Domestic box office: $30.3 million
Global box office: $81.2 million

“The Zone of Interest”
Opening weekend: $129,934 from four theaters ($32,483 per screen)
Domestic box office: $5.4 million
Global box office: $9 million

This post was originally published on Variety

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