For years, maybe decades, there have been complaints that the Academy Awards ignore box office hits in favor of prestige pictures that relatively few people see. Sure, there are movies like “Titanic” and “The Lord of the Rings,” but they are the exception rather than the rule when it comes to Oscar time.
This year the Best Picture nominees seem to be bucking that trend.
Last year was pretty typical. The big winner at the Oscars was “The Artist,” that black-and-white, more or less silent picture that was loved by the few people who saw it. Even after its high-profile Oscar wins, it still barely cleared $40 million at the box office. In fact, if we use the standard figure of $100 million as the benchmark for a movie to be considered a hit, there was only one hit among the nine Best Picture nominees last year – “The Help.”
This year things have really changed. An astonishing seven of the nine Best Picture nominees will clear that $100 million bar. (Five already have and two are on the brink.) That’s simply never been done before. What’s even more remarkable is that, with the possible exception of “Les Miserables,” none of them were designed to be a blockbuster. In fact, most of them on paper looked like pretty risky investments.
After all, “Lincoln,” is not a heroic look at our beloved 16th President but a narrowly focused movie about the nitty-gritty, behind-the-scenes, arm-twisting that goes into passing a piece of Congressional legislation. That kind of sausage-making is going to gross an amazing $190 million.
Quentin Tarantino’s hyper-violent R-rated “Django Unchained” about a former slave out for bloody revenge is next – pulling in $165 million.
And “Les Miserables” will clear a solid $150 million. Given the worldwide popularity of the musical it’s based on, this is no real surprise, but it’s worth pointing out that musicals are notoriously unpredictable when brought to the screen. (Remember the fiascos that were “A Chorus Line” and “The Producers?”)
“Argo,” the Iranian hostage movie, is expected to be the big winner Oscar night, a possibility no one took too seriously when Ben Affleck, with only two directing credits to his name, signed on to make this little known, 30-year-old fact-based story. It’s about to cash in to the tune of almost $140 million.
An off-beat romantic comedy about two individuals battling mental illness was nobody’s idea of a sure thing, and yet “Silver Linings Playbook” has nominations in all the key categories – Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress. Equally impressive, it’s going to make $120 million at the box office.
“Zero Dark Thirty,” the uber-serious, painstaking account of the ten-year search for Osama Bin Laden, is also set to clear the $100 million bar soon.
Perhaps most remarkable of all is Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi.” Here’s a quasi-religious, green-screen meditation on the meaning of life with a virtually unknown cast. It’s mostly about an Indian boy stuck alone in a boat with a Bengal tiger.
Considered a major financial risk at the time, “Life of Pi” has not only taken in a healthy $115 million here in the United States, it’s become a world-wide sensation, racking up a gaudy world box office total of $670 million. That’s almost as unbelievable as the story the boy in the boat has to tell.
And let’s not dismiss the two Best Picture nominees who won’t get anywhere near the 100 million dollar mark. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Amour” should make $12 million and $11 million respectively. But since both films were made on the cheap, they both stand to turn quite a healthy profit. For instance, “Beasts” at the box office made 12 times what the film cost to make. By that standard, it was more successful than even the phenomenally successful “Life of Pi.”
By just about any financial standards, all these Best Picture nominees are hits.