We Know the Best Picture Oscar Contenders, but No One Knows Who’s Watching Them

Tom Brueggemann
·7 min read

“Nomadland” (Searchlight) and “Minari” (A24), two of the top Oscar contenders in multiple categories, have started their theatrical releases in parallel with home premium VOD play. On April 25 we’ll know how they performed at the Oscars, but we will learn almost nothing about the size of the audience who watched them.

Audience size and box office aren’t Oscar metrics, but it’s a key part of the awards-season narrative. Few will vote for a film they haven’t seen, and the best way to ensure that voters prioritize a screener (or in the olden days, move a DVD to the top of the stack) is a swell of interest from others who already have seen the movie. Oscar jockeying is a complex business, and there’s no clear ratio between audience and awards, but last year awards watchers became increasingly confident in the Best Picture chances for dark horse “Parasite” as its box office grew.

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Many things are different this year. The delayed Oscars will create a new COVID-compliant format, theatrical play was not essential to eligibility, almost all screenings are virtual, and the box office is a shadow of its former self. How can films create a sense of awards momentum?

Flashback to 2019, when Netflix acquisition “Roma” became a leading contender for multiple awards, including a serious run for Best Picture., preceded by a three week platform rollout of theaters. It faced backlash with suggestions by some, including Steven Spielberg, that it should compete as television. Two years later, home viewing is central to movie audiences.

This may be the only Oscar race in history in which nearly all of the films will have little to no theatrical runs. After the ceremony, we may learn a lot about what works best to maximize attention and legitimacy. For now, here is the performance data we have on leading contenders.

Netflix

All but one of their leading contenders saw limited theatrical play, but per Netflix policy no grosses are known. Spot checks of theaters that showed “The Trial of the Chicago 7” last October showed very few attendees.

More relevant is how these films performed on the site. We don’t know actual viewership, but we do have their charts which daily list rankings. Even these are inexact; different days have different levels of viewing.

Here what we know:

“Da 5 Bloods”

Spike Lee’s film debuted at the peak of theater closings. On the site, Netflix claimed that by the end of July, it had 27 million household viewings worldwide. By the end of November, it ranked as the #16 most-streamed title in 2020. It was the #1 film for its first weekend, falling to #6 by the second.

“The Trial of the Chicago 7”

Aaron Sorkin’s courtroom drama peaked at #2 on their charts, with 10 days total on the list. Though it didn’t rank as high as “Bloods,” it was the streamer’s #8 for 2020 as of November.

“Hillbilly Elegy”

Ron Howard’s film, with Glenn Close as a contender, spent 13 days in the top 10 and one day at #1.

“Mank”

A very weak response for David Fincher’s black-and-white biopic. It charted only two days, each at #10.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

With Chadwick Boseman as the likely Best Actor winner and other nominations pending, this scored three days at #1, but fell quickly with only seven days on the chart.

“Pieces of a Woman”

Vanessa Kirby is in the mix for Best Actress, with her chances bolstered by initial strong charting. It started at #1 for three days, and was listed for eight days total.

“A Life Ahead”

The Sophia Loren drama charted for four days, peaking at #5.

“Malcolm & Marie”

Released a week ago (February 5), this was #1 for its first three days, and has been in the top four since then during its initial week.

Amazon

“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”

Amazon provides no charts, but in November it ranked as the year’s #2 streamed title. Nielsen projected that its opening week drew 5.9 million domestic views. By comparison, the first “Borat” sold over 4 million tickets in its opening week.

Amazon has not released any data on contenders “One Night in Miami” or “Sound of Metal.”

Disney+

“Hamilton”

Oscar ineligible and Golden Globe-nominated, it is listed as the #1 direct-to-streaming viewed title through November. Disney claimed 22 million views in its first month. If extrapolated to movie ticket sales, that would be about a $200 million gross.

“Soul”

17 million views in its first week, but no additional data from Disney.

Hulu

“Palm Springs” broke the site’s opening-weekend viewing record in July, and by November Hulu ranked it as #26 for the year among streamed movies. Opened in parallel with a few open theaters via Neon, it grossed $164,000.

HBO Max

Major contender “Judas and the Black Messiah” opens this weekend in theaters and on the site. We will get box office estimates, with streaming data at their discretion. “The Little Things,” with Jared Leto in the acting mix, has grossed $7.8 million through last weekend in North America.

Premium VOD Releases

This model takes multiple forms, but two titles stand out for this year’s Oscars. Both come from Universal Studios, which took the lead in creating a release model with a three-week theatrical window.

“News of the World”

The Tom Hanks western has grossed $11 million domestic in theaters since December 25. It went to parallel PVOD on January 15. For its first two weeks, it was the top overall player on a variety of charts, both those based on the number of rentals and on money earned. That’s a strong showing, likely representing multiple millions of rentals.

“Promising Young Woman”

From Focus, this specialized titled has shown real strength. Its $4.7 million since Christmas Day is impressive under the circumstances and on PVOD it has been in the overall top 10 since its January 15 release. Of note: It seems to have gotten stronger in its third week rather than its second. This feels like a film that, with more nominations and strong word of mouth, could greatly benefit from its release strategy.

Incomplete or still to open contenders

A few more films will qualify before the Academy deadline of February 28.

“Nomadland”

The possible Best Picture frontrunner opened in eight IMAX theaters two weeks ago, expanded last week, and will go to more this week. Searchlight will expand it to a wider run on February 19, the same day it becomes available to stream on Hulu. So far, all theatrical grosses are under wraps. That’s unprecedented for a major studio, but it follows Netflix’s example. A source said no decision has been made as to whether the expanded run will include gross reporting.

“Minari”

A24’s top contender opens February 12 in several hundred theaters nationwide. It also will show for two weeks on the company’s own virtual cinema for $20, with a limit on the number of viewers for specific showtimes. As of now, they are sold out for the first 10 days. (A24 has made no decision on gross reporting.) PVOD begins February 26. At that point, it will share revenue with platforms.

“The Father”

This is Sony Pictures Classics’ lead contender this year, and the distributor is the least aggressive in using home platforms. It will begin theater play in top cities where possible on February 26 and expand nationally on March 12. On March 26, right after the nominations, it will hit PVOD.

Lee Daniels’ biopic, “The United States vs. Billie Holliday,” is slated by Hulu on February 26, with no confirmed theater presence at this point. STX has “The Mauritanian,” with a theatrical run starting on February 12, PVOD on March 2. Sony Pictures Classics opened “French Exit” with Michelle Pfeiffer on February 12 in a limited run, with further theatrical runs in April. Apple+ has “Cherry” in theaters on February 26 and streaming two weeks after.

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