One of the traditions of Oscar coverage—in addition to crazy awards campaigns and a season which lasts 9 months—is the habitual article pointing out how little box office the top films earn. Have I been guilty of writing this feature? Absolutely.
As a fan, I want the Academy Awards to succeed as much as the next person. This year, though, it feels a pinch crazy to give out film awards in a year when no films were released in theaters. As a data guy, I’m most upset that I can’t update my “how popular are the Oscars” article this year.
Well, I can update it, I just can’t use box office.
It’s not like films entirely went away: big budget films were released straight to streaming all year. Films like Hamilton, Palm Springs, Soul, Wonder Woman and Greyhound, all of which claimed some of the top spots in my past “Who Won the Month” columns. Meaning presumably we could find some data about how well Oscar films performed.
Indeed, the narrative seems to be that, if anything, the move to streaming is better for prestige/award-contending films. Now folks don’t have to traipse down to a theater, but can fire up their Netflix or Hulu or Prime Video and big Oscar films at home. So they’ll watch even more critically lauded films. Let’s answer that question:
How popular are Oscar films in streaming?
As you can see fairly convincingly, the films nominated for Best Picture tend to not be very popular:
Or better said, they’re as popular as they have always been. A blockbuster film in America makes about $200-400 million at the box office, with some much bigger outliers. A typical Oscar nominated film—especially Sundance-type prestige fare—makes $30-40 million. That 10 to 1 ratio (an order of magnitude) is about what what we see in the above list.
Some data caveats right off the bat.
– Three Oscar films haven’t been released to streaming yet, The Father, Minari and Promising Young Women.
– My data set of Nielsen ranked films from March 2020 to March 2021 includes 49 first run, pay 1 or pay 2 films. (I excluded library titles that debuted more than two years after their initial theatrical run.)
– I counted as “Oscar films” any movie with any award pretense, including Golden Globe nominees (Borat Subsequent Moviefilm and I Care a A Lot) and other Oscar awards besides Best Picture (One Night in Miami, Hillbilly Elegy, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom).
– This is for live-action films. Animated films are by rule more popular every year.
Implications and Insight
– Notably, since Nielsen now releases a weekly top ten for film, about twice as many film titles make the list each week than in the past, and this gave us numbers for Amazon’s One Night in Miami and Hulu’s Nomadland (the frontrunner) and The United States vs Billie Holiday. If we had the full top ten for film in Q4 of 2020, likely Trial of the Chicago 7 would have made the list, though Mank would still have struggled.
– What about other data? Sure, I pulled Netflix’s Top Ten data, and the story that tells is roughly similar to the Nielsen story:
– Notably, Mank didn’t make the Netflix top ten films list the week it was released in December. Folks were watching too many Christmas movies, I guess.
– As for “datecdotes”, Netflix has only released two datecdotes for films with any Oscar aspirations, The Irishman (64 million viewers of 2 minutes in first 28 days) and now I Care A Lot (56 million viewers). Maybe previous and current Oscar contenders like Marriage Story, Roma and Mank are so popular Netflix doesn’t need to tell us. Maybe.
– Are these Oscar films “worth” it? It depends. In some cases, the acquisition costs are actually fairly low (the low tens of millions) to buy the rights. (Something like Mank or The Irishman, with top A-List talent, though, are much more expensive.) But then to even get an Oscar nomination requires spending tens of millions of dollars in campaigning. So I don’t know, but I’d love to see Netflix’s math on it.
– Yes, the winner will likely get a Best Picture win “streaming bump” like Parasite earned last year. In four weeks, it will be interesting to see if the Nielsen rankings see a bump in Oscar viewing as catch up before the awards.
– As for the Oscars themselves, these films weren’t very popular, so its unlikely lots of folks will tune into an awards show to see if they take home the top prize. I’m not saying the Academy should nominate blockbusters—especially this year with no blockbusters—but if they did, they’d probably have more viewers on Sunday!