Beyond ‘Barbenheimer’, This Year’s Best Picture Nominees Didn’t Leave a Big Box Office Footprint | Analysis

In many ways, the box office profile for the 2024 Best Picture Oscar nominee field looks much like last year’s nominated field: A pair of cultural phenomenon hits taking up the lion’s share of grosses while the majority of contenders are specialty and international titles that gross tens rather than hundreds of millions in limited release.

While last year’s box office heavyweights were blockbuster sequels — “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Avatar: The Way of Water” — this year’s were the summer titans simply known in pop culture as “Barbenheimer”: Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie,” which grossed $1.44 billion worldwide, and Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer,” which grossed a biopic record $952 million.

Combined, those two films account for just under 90% of all global grosses for Best Picture nominated films this past year, with “Barbie” taking a 54.2% share and “Oppenheimer” taking a 35.7% share. In a very distant third is Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” with $156 million grossed worldwide for a 5.3% share among the nominees.

The six other films that got full theatrical releases with reported box office numbers — “Past Lives,” “Poor Things,” “Anatomy of a Fall,” “American Fiction,” “The Holdovers“ and “The Zone of Interest” — have combined for $115 million at the global box office, less than the $162 million “Barbie” made in just its domestic opening weekend. (The 10th film in the bunch, Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro,” is a Netflix film that did not make box office numbers from its limited theatrical engagement available.)

It’s another example of how the franchise-driven nature of the wide release box office and the cinematic tastes of Academy voters rarely align. So it’s a big deal when those voters give the nod to a lighthearted, zeitgeist-defining film like “Barbie” or when audiences gravitate towards an awards-friendly drama based around grim subject matter like “Oppenheimer.”

In fact, if “Oppenheimer” fulfills its frontrunner status and wins Best Picture on March 10, it will become the first film in 20 years to win that top prize and gross more than $500 million at the global box office. The last film to do that was also the last Best Picture winner to be the top-grossing film of its year: 2003’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.”

As for the specialty films and mature dramas that make up the majority of the Best Picture field, the same box-office hurdles that plagued 2022 contenders like “The Banshees of Inisherin” and “The Fabelmans” are still at play.

Past Lives
“Past Lives” (Jon Pack/Sundance Institute)

With the pandemic hastening the release of films to VOD and streaming platforms, most specialty titles that get nominated won’t have a significant chunk of their theatrical run remaining by the time they get a Best Picture nod unless they are released in December. In the case of films like “Past Lives,” which came out in May and grossed just $10.8 million in limited release in North America, the bump from a nomination now comes from increased streaming viewership and on-demand sales.

Comscore analyst Paul Dergarabedian thinks that post-theatrical bumps are where December releases like “Poor Things” ($20.4 million domestic) and “American Fiction” ($8 million domestic) will have to turn to, even as the distributors of those films look to capitalize on Oscar buzz. Searchlight has already announced plans to expand “Poor Things” to its widest theater count at 1,800 locations this week to take advantage of its 11 Oscar nominations.

“Films like ‘American Fiction’ might have been able to leg out for weeks and weeks leading up to Oscar Sunday before the pandemic, but in this new market where most if not all the nominated films are on streaming and VOD by January and audiences are getting accustomed to that, a big box office Oscar bump is low on these films’ wish list,” Dergarabedian said.

This past weekend, “American Fiction” made $1.8 million from 850 theaters while “Poor Things” expanded from 580 to 1,400 theaters and made $2.1 million. With no major wide releases hitting theaters this weekend, there won’t be any fresh competition for these newly-minted nominees to worry about as they try to turn their awards status into ticket sales.

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