How This Year’s Oscar Contenders Will Determine the Health of the Post-Pandemic Box Office

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With the film festivals in Venice, Toronto and Telluride now complete, a critical period for the box office is about to begin.

Oscar contenders like Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” and Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon,” two wide-release films with recognizable directors and casts, easy-to-market plots and plenty of awards potential seem poised to perform well in theaters for weeks if not months. And unless the spread of another COVID variant sends headlines of escalating case rates back into the news cycle this winter, the older audiences who drive specialty film box office have less reason to stay home.

While none of the films from the fall festivals will make what this winter’s big blockbuster sequels are projected to earn, the overall box office depends on several of these art-house films luring moviegoers in numbers that are comparable to the pre-pandemic era. And that remains a big question for everyone in the indie film world.

“We know that older audiences are coming back to theaters. ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ and ‘Elvis’ proved that,” one distribution head told TheWrap. “But I honestly don’t know if there’s still a theatrical audience for a lot of the films that get nominated for Oscars. Not to pick on ‘Moonlight,’ but films like ‘Moonlight’ didn’t make that much money before the pandemic. Are they still going to make money now or do people interested in those movies just no longer feel the need to drive to a theater to see them?” (A24’s 2017 Best Picture winner grossed $27 million in theaters.)

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There are also fewer places to play art-house films due to theater closures in key cities that have permanently changed the specialty landscape. Without the Landmark Pico and Arclight Hollywood in Los Angeles, several distributors say they will be relying on major exhibition chains like AMC, which have multiplexes like the Century City 15 and New York’s Lincoln Square 13, to screen prestige films in the large auditoriums that Arclight used to provide.

Specialty chains like Laemmle, Angelika and Alamo Drafthouse have moved to fill the hole left behind by Arclight’s shutdown, while Landmark Theaters has taken over the Playhouse 7 in Pasadena. All are trying to draw in indie-loving crowds in Los Angeles, New York and other major cities, but the numbers have shown that this audience has diminished.

In the 2010s, fall awards contenders like “Green Book” and “Argo” provided solid box office in October and November, drawing audiences who weren’t interested in major blockbusters, Halloween horror offerings or Thanksgiving family films.

In the post-holiday period, films like “American Sniper,” “La La Land,” “Hidden Figures” and “1917” would stand alongside Christmas franchise blockbusters like Disney’s “Star Wars” films to sustain grosses during a time when few if any major new releases hit theaters. Last year, overall weekend grosses sank as Sony’s December box office ”Spider-Man: No Way Home” leveled off. The Best Picture Oscar nominees that screened in theaters only grossed a combined $10 million between nomination day in early February and the March 27 Oscar broadcast.

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Distributors are worried that this year might see a repeat in that kind of underwhelming performance from art-house films compared to previous years. “There would be a handful of fall films that would get theater averages of $50,000 or more during that first limited weekend. We’ll be lucky to even see one this year,” an art-house cinema executive told TheWrap. “Everything has changed so much with release windows and nationwide rollouts that I wouldn’t bother comparing this fall to pre-pandemic. We just need to do better than last year.”

Because of their wide range of tone, key demographics and release strategies, no single film will tell the whole story of whether the prestige market is recovering. But together, they will tell a larger story about how different types of specialty films are recovering.

On one end, there are true art-house films, ones that aren’t trying to reach a wide audience and instead finding those looking for a more thought-provoking story. This year’s festivals have plenty of those, including Focus Features’ “Tár,” a drama from Todd Fields about a woman’s rise and fall from the peak of the classical music world. The film has propelled lead star Cate Blanchett to the front of the Oscar race after critics at Venice and Telluride gushed over her performance.

Films like “Tár” predominantly make up the specialty slate for October, with other releases including MUBI’s Korean thriller “Decision to Leave,” Searchlight’s Martin McDonagh dark comedy “The Banshees of Inisherin” and MGM’s historical drama “Till.” None of these films will be major players at the box office, but are trying to draw a better turnout than fall 2021 films like “Spencer” and “Belfast,” which both failed to top $10 million in North America despite widespread acclaim.

“The Fabelmans” (Universal)
“The Fabelmans” (Universal)

The box office’s best chance for a “Green Book” or “La La Land”-esque winter prestige hit won’t come until the Thanksgiving and Christmas season. Universal will release “Fabelmans” in select cities on Nov. 11 as counterprogramming to Disney/Marvel’s “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and then go wide on Thanksgiving weekend. “Green Book” will be the closest comp here as both films are Universal releases in November that won the TIFF Audience Award, a major festival honor that has gone to an eventual Best Picture Oscar nominee in all but one year since 2008.

“Green Book” earned an extended Thanksgiving weekend opening of $7.4 million and then legged out all the way through March for an $85 million domestic total. If “The Fabelmans” gets anywhere close to that, it would be a big sign of hope that wide appeal prestige dramas — the sort that Spielberg has made for decades — can still make a decent chunk of cash theatrically while proving that the box office failure of Spielberg’s “West Side Story” last year could be chalked up to COVID-19 keeping its core audience home.

As for “Babylon,” Paramount is bringing back a tried-and-true release strategy that got shelved over the last two years by COVID: a Christmas day release in New York and Los Angeles before going wide on Jan. 6.

Brad Pitt plays Jack Conrad and Diego Calva plays Manny Torres in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.
“Babylon” (Paramount)

While the initial turnout for “Babylon” will likely be driven by older-skewing audiences not interested in more populist titles like “Avatar 2” or the Whitney Houston biopic “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” Paramount is banking that the film’s wild, party-like nature and a starry cast led by Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie will create word-of-mouth that will allow it to leg out through January when fewer major films are coming out.

It’s possible that the box office won’t need to rely on “Babylon” so heavily to sustain January grosses as there will be a wider range of wide releases to get more moviegoers interested. But if both it and “The Fabelmans” don’t have a significant presence on the charts to kick off 2023, then it is far less likely that overall box office grosses during the winter will consistently reach pre-pandemic levels unless a “No Way Home”-level blockbuster is on the slate.

But whether these films are capital-A arthouse films or have a household name like Spielberg attached, a common thread from distributors is that they’re no longer banking on a film’s awards potential to drive audiences to see a film in theaters. While Oscar-nominated films in decades past could count on some turnout from moviegoers wanting to catch up before Oscar Sunday, the precipitous decline in awards shows ratings has made execs skeptical about the influence of the Golden Globes and Academy Awards on the box office. (And the Globes themselves have become a tarnished showcase for awards since before the pandemic.)

“Maybe people hear offhand that a film won some Globes or is nominated for a bunch of Oscars, but that’s not something most people are actively looking at anymore,” one distributor said. “We’re just focused on marketing the movie on its own merits.”

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