When I first wrote about the box office potential of Oscar films back in 2014, I noted that while financial success is not as significant as critical acclaim and pedigree, it can still sometimes play a key role in making or breaking a film’s awards potential. Four years later and, for the most part, that still remains the case. Netflix has been attempting to crush that perception in recent years, and last year they made Mudbound the first film in modern history without an officially reported box office gross to receive multiple major nominations. And yet they are currently considering releasing their big horse this year, Roma, in theaters two weeks before the streaming release, arguably in an attempt to make it a more serious contender.
Whether Netflix will release the box office numbers for ROMA remains to be seen, but in the meantime, let us look at some other Oscar contenders opening in theaters this month, how they might perform, and how a good or bad box office performance could sway their success.
Boy Erased (Nov. 5, Limited)
Studio: Focus Features
Contending in: Picture, Actor, Supp. Actor, Supp. Actress, Screenplay
How Will It Perform? Joel Edgerton’s first directorial effort, The Gift, was a surprise success both critically and commercially, making over $43 million on a mere $5 million budget. Edgerton’s sophomore effort, Boy Erased, is looking to be a much tougher sell, especially since reviews for the film are, as of now, actually weaker than those for The Gift. But its cast is well-stacked enough that it still has breakout potential, especially if the emotional story catches on for mainstream audiences. The film looks good for an opening per-theater-average above $30,000 this weekend, maybe even above $40,000. Where it goes after that is hard to determine, but I pin its final total around $15 million.
Significance of its box office performance to its awards performance: Moderate to high. Boy Erasedhas been leaking awards buzz for the last month or so, but a surprise commercial breakout (say, $25+ million total) could give it a much needed boost, and turn it back into a contender.
Widows (Nov. 16, Wide)
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Contending in: Picture, Directing, Actress, Supp. Actor, Supp. Actress, Screenplay, possible techs
How Will It Perform? One of the biggest wildcards of the awards season is also a box office wildcard. Reviews for Widows out of the fall festivals have been outstanding, with several noting just how darned entertaining the whole film is. The film doesn’t have any actors that are box office draws on their own, but it is the kind of ensemble so filled with “hey I know them!” actors that they could form some box office synergy. With a $40 million budget, the film needs to only top $60 million domestic to be considered a success, but I personally think the film could go even higher, especially with strong legs – I’m currently predicting strong opening of $21 million, and an even stronger total of $90 million.
Significance of its box office performance to its awards performance: High. As strong as the film’s reviews are, a major studio crime film like this really needs to connect with audiences if it’s going to be remembered. A disappointing run (say, a final domestic total under its budget) could hurt the film significantly, but if it can break out and, heck, cross $100 million, then that could easily turn this into a top 5 Picture contender that plays at multiplexes well into 2019.
Green Book (Nov. 16, Limited; Nov. 21, Wide)
Contending in: Picture, Actor, Supp. Actor, Screenplay
How Will It Perform? Coming out of TIFF with that Audience Award win, a large part of Green Book’s awards narrative has become “critics might be tepid on it, but audiences are gonna LOVE this,” with comparisons to breakouts like The Help and Hidden Figures. I’m less certain that the film can reach those box office heights. Despite his recent Oscar win, Mahershala Ali is far from a household name, and Viggo Mortensen hasn’t had a box office smash since he left Middle Earth almost 15 years ago. It also opens on a very competitive Thanksgiving frame, up against two major sequels (Ralph Breaks the Internet and Creed II) and two more blockbuster holdovers (Fantastic Beasts 2, The Grinch). That said, legs are sure to be outstanding, so even with a tepid opening (I’m thinking $16 million over the 5-day frame), it can hold strongly into the holiday season and through awards season, finishing with a strong, profitable $75 million total. But there is definitely potential for more.
Significance of its box office performance to its awards performance: Very High. Again, this film is a capital C, capital-P Crowd Pleaser, and if it can’t find a crowd to please, why should the Academy take it seriously? But if audiences love it and really do turn it into another Hidden Figures/The Help, that can help tip it into Best Picture lock, and strengthen Ali’s chances at a run for Oscar #2 – and heck, could even make Mortensen a dark horse to pick up Oscar #1.
The Favourite (Nov. 23, Limited)
Studio: Fox Searchlight
Contending in: Picture, Directing, multiple acting categories, Screenplay, several techs
How Will It Perform? This is the film I have been struggling with the most, to be completely honest. This type of European costume drama hasn’t seen mainstream success in America in a very long while, mostly relegated to small limited releases with the hope of a Costumes nomination at the Oscars. But The Favourite has some of the best reviews of the year, two actresses with mainstream name recognition, and an acidic sense of humor that sets it apart from your typical period piece and could bring in a more diverse crowd. With all of its buzz the film will no doubt start big in limited release (I would predict an $80,000 PTA in its opening weekend at this time), but it could really go anywhere whenever it expands – it could slow down and finish with $10-15 million, or it could manage to connect with wider audiences and make over $40 million. I will tilt closer to the former with a $23 million total.
Significance of its box office performance to its awards performance: Low for nominations, moderate for wins. Even if the film stalls at $10 million, I think it is safe for several major nominations. But if the film wants to contend for some wins, and especially if Olivia Colman wants to overtake Close and Gaga in the Best Actress race, it will will need a stronger box office run to make it feel like a major player.
If Beale Street Could Talk (Nov. 30, Limited)
Contending in: Picture, Directing, Supp. Actress, Screenplay, multiple techs
How will it perform? Despite no major stars, an unknown director, and a seemingly tough subject, Moonlight managed to become of the biggest art house success stories of the decade, with its jaw-dropping $100k per-theater-average opening weekend, followed by a steady expansion that helped turn it into one of the greatest underdog stories in the history of the Oscars. And while it has slightly less passionate reviews and a distributor in turmoil, I think Jenkins’ follow-up could position itself for a similar run. A big platform start seems likely (I would say a $90k, a little below Moonlight), and it will likely expand into semi-wide release just in time for a holiday boost. I currently have it finishing with a $20 million total, just below Moonlight’s pre-Picture win gross.
Significance of its box office performance to its awards performance: Moderate. There is a small chance that Annapurna’s financial woes could hurt this film at the box office and as a result hurt its awards chances. But the film already has a passionate following that is pushing for the film, so as long as it breaks the $10 million threshold, I think the film should be safe for multiple above-the-line nominations while contending for a Supporting Actress win for Regina King.