• Thu. Jul 25th, 2024

Why Some Oscar-Winning Movies Make Money and Others Don’t

Why Some Oscar-Winning Movies Make Money and Others Don’t


Oscar movies
Six of the 10 Oscar nominees this year earned less than $50 million worldwide. ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

In past Hollywood eras, a well-liked movie usually sold a fair amount of tickets. Today, quality in prestige films can garner widespread acclaim, but translating that into viewership is increasingly difficult. This year, Barbie ($1.4 billion) and Oppenheimer ($974 million) accounted for roughly 85 percent of the global grosses among Academy Award Best Picture nominees. Six of the 10 nominees earned less than $50 million worldwide.

Unfortunately, this top-heavy dynamic is a recurring pattern in 21st century Hollywood. Traditional awards hopeful films struggle commercially alongside rapturously received blockbusters, a far cry from the 1980s and 1990s when Oscar contenders like Rain Man and Ghost topped the worldwide box office. Exploring the successful elements of commercially successful prestige films in recent years helps us understand what makes a financially lucrative awards contender in this new normal.

What do commercially successful prestige films have in common?

Audiences are a fickle bunch and tastes change over time. From Q1 2019 to Q2 2024, genres like action, adventure and comedy saw slightly decreased audience demand while drama, animation, history, horror, romance and others maintained or slightly increased their demand levels, according to Parrot Analytics, where I work as Senior Entertainment Industry Strategist. Drama, as of Q2, accounts for the largest share of demand (23.5 percent) and can be exploited through creative and modernized sub-genres. 

Studios use these trends to tailor content to audience tastes, reflected in recent breakout commercial successes. (Prestige film is generally considered to be elevated storytelling typically associated with hopeful awards recognition). 

High-concept genre blends—films with unique central plot hooks and structures that mix elements of multiple genres—have seen success, while traditional dramas have struggled. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which votes on the Oscars, has long been reluctant to consistently embrace science-fiction and fantasy, with a few exceptions. Yet Guillermo del Toro’s romantic period piece The Shape of Water not only claimed Best Picture in 2018, but also earned nearly $200 million globally against a $20 million budget. 

A24’s Everything Everywhere All At Once became the studio’s biggest earner ever ($143 million worldwide against a $25 million budget) and a surprise Best Picture winner. Audiences responded to its blend of relatable family drama, romance, dimension-hopping science-fiction, humor and creativity.

Elevated horror, such as Jordan Peele’s Get Out ($255 million vs a $4 million budget) and Ari Aster’s Hereditary ($83 million/$10 million budget), has helped transform a genre far too long associated with schlocky shock value into a prestige medium adept at delivering social commentary. Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things coupled a unique visual aesthetic and a thematically layered tale to become one of Searchlight Pictures’ higher-grossing films. Even Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan ($330 million) emphasized its psychological horror elements. Speculative fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, horror) tends to vacillate between high floor and high ceiling in terms of viewership when executed properly.

A few examples do not make a trend, but audiences are increasingly gravitating toward awards hopeful films with a rare cocktail of mixed ingredients rather than straightforward dramas. This may explain why excellent nominees like The Holdovers, American Fiction, and Past Lives struggled commercially this year to varying degrees. High-concept genre blends are different, weird and exciting compared to the deserving but perhaps more typical Best Picture winners and contenders of yesteryear.

Cross-cultural family dramas have also recently found critical and commercial success.  Examples include Everything Everywhere All At Once, Parasite ($262 million worldwide vs a $15.5 million budget), The Farewell ($23.1 million/$3 million), Minari ($15.5 million/$2 million) and even Apple TV+’s CODA. These films have helped revive a genre in decline by expanding the scope of creative focus while remaining thematically relevant (and potent) to a broad swath of audiences. Universaliality sold through specificity. (Unique marketing approaches and release strategies also play a role). 

What do these movies have in common? Finding success in prestige films is a special balance of understanding who likes what and how much it should cost to provide it. 

Firstly, their budgets are manageable if not outright cheap, which means the path to profitability is much shorter versus an Oppenheimer or Avatar: The Way of Water. Second, these films largely resonate with a younger audience compared to more expected Best Picture winners (EEAAO and The Way of Water were the only 2023 Best Picture nominees in which Gen Z and Zennials made up over 50 percent of the audience, per Parrot). The average age of Academy members is over 60, and yet 27 percent of 2023 moviegoers that showed up to a film on opening day were between 18-24, according to an MPA National Theater Report. Program to committed moviegoers, not Academy members! 

The tricky effect of streaming platforms

The rise of direct-to-consumer platforms has created a tricky ripple effect. Streaming has expanded distribution and financing for niche cinema, but smaller films often get lost in vast online libraries with minimal promotion.

Between Jan. 23, when Oscar nominations were announced, and May 19, only three of the 10 Best Picture nominees this year landed among the 10 most-watched weekly movies on streaming in the U.S., according to Nielsen. Generally, prestige movies outside of obvious blockbusters do not generate significant streaming viewership

Netflix has seen nine of its original films nominated for Best Picture, yet only Don’t Look Up and All Quiet on the Western Front rank among the streamer’s 10 most-watched English and non-English films, respectively, according to the company’s self-reported viewership numbers. 

Netflix’s nine Best Picture nominees lost an average of 34 percent of audience demand between the first and second months of availability, compared to mainstream titles like Bird Box (-28 percent), Red Notice (-27 percent) and Murder Mystery (-23 percent), according to Parrot. This suggests that the streamer’s prestige films struggle to sustain audience interest over longer periods (other Netflix awards hopefuls this year, such as Nimona, Maestro, May December, Nyad and Rustin failed to generate much commercial traction). Streaming-exclusive films leave a smaller cultural footprint compared to theatrical releases.

Yet at the same time, The Shape of Water production designer Paul Austerberry told CBC that the right film released on streaming at the right time can help provide more widespread access, which leads to a longer waterfall of commercial value. “Everything Everywhere, All at Once for instance came out in March and usually that might be forgotten by the time voting season comes,” he said. “But because it went on streaming and was very popular on streaming, I think it brought a lot more people.”

It’s all a double-edged sword. May marked record highs for streaming’s share of U.S. TV usage, as the category accounted for 38.8 percent of TV, according to Nielsen. Such audience activity can help films find a second life post-theaters (even box office bomb Madame Web is doing well on streaming!). But that also raises the possibility that consumers are spending more time with streaming and less time in theaters. 

Netflix, Amazon and Apple TV+ tend to invest in original movies with awards potential, though their appetites for expensive yet underwatched titles has understandably diminished. Specialty divisions of legacy media studios – think Universal’s Focus Features or FOX (FOXA)’s Searchlight Pictures – must constantly justify their existence amid greater scrutiny on corporate bottom lines. Production studios such as A24 and Neon remain bastions of creative quality, yet even the former is now transitioning to a more broad appeal focus with greater commercial ambitions. 

In such a competitive and crowded marketplace, the financially uncertain world of prestige film is feeling the squeeze. Understanding shifting audience preference trends can help a studio aim more accurately, while studying the narrative DNA of successful examples from recent history can help reverse engineer winning formulas. Yet there’s no doubt that the industry faces an uphill battle moving forward. As Variety analyst Kaare Eriksen noted to CBC, “the audience for the core of awards fare has grown difficult to sustain outside of the industry itself.”

Why Some Oscar-Winning Movies Make Money and Others Don’t





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