Even discounting the Stephen Fry gush factor, anyone watching the Baftas ceremony a couple of weeks ago would be left in little doubt that the film establishment is pretty pleased with the set of titles competing for this year’s awards. Fry announced that in all his years as host, he couldn’t remember a set of films and performances that he had so admired and enjoyed, and the assembled throng was happy to believe him. This was a night in which the predictable bout of self-congratulation unfolded with a rare hint of genuine conviction.
When it comes to the annual frenzy of award-giving, the film industry likes to suggest that quality is the only consideration, and that the numbers don’t count. But, of course, that’s not true. Box office, ultimately, is the only validation that matters, the one measurable that will keep the champagne flowing and the red carpets thronged for one more year. In 2013, to the satisfaction of all, the films that academy members thought were rather good have tended to be ones that cinema audiences have likewise embraced.
At the UK box office, it has been especially notable. A year ago, War Horse was the only best picture Oscar nominee to make it past m, with a decent haul of m. The other eight, including eventual winner The Artist, fell short, and titles including Hugo and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close were noted fiscal disappointments. This year, it has been a different story, with Les Misérables (m) and Life of Pi (m) leading a profitable field that also includes Quentin Tarantino’s biggest ever UK box-office hit (Django Unchained, m).
In the US, it’s an even richer story, with six pictures making it past the m (m) barrier. And if this year’s Oscar race has been mainly a battle between US films that variously look inwardly at America (Lincoln, Django Unchained, Beasts of the Southern Wild) and outwardly to the rest of the world (Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, Life of Pi), nowhere has that disparity been seen more vividly than in the box-office figures for the competing titles. Put simply, in the US, the films that have done best are the ones that celebrate American heroism through the prism of past conflicts: Lincoln, Django Unchained. Outside the US, it’s a different history lesson (Les Misérables) that has triumphed, and the picture that has done best of all (Life of Pi, an astonishing m non-US gross) is one with a global, spiritual, epic dimension.
According to Variety’s Robert Mitchell, the films that have most savvily capitalised on their awards heat come, unsurprisingly, from the Weinstein stable. While Warners played safe with Argo, rolling it out internationally in October and November, rather than risk the ultra-competitive months of January and February, Django Unchained took the who-dares-wins approach, with Weinstein’s partner Sony releasing outside North America only after Oscar nominations were announced, and grossing m in those territories, a record for a Tarantino film. “Considering it’s a western,” says Mitchell, “which international audiences don’t traditionally go for, that’s a remarkable result.” In the US, Weinstein kept Silver Linings Playbook relatively tight until nominations day, then expanding to 2,500 screens. Says Mitchell: “With Oscar nods in all four acting categories, the first time that has happened in 31 years, Silver Linings Playbook was one of the most talked-about films coming out of the nominations. And in the US it’s the film that’s benefited most from the Oscar bounce, adding m since the nominations were announced.”
For Mitchell, the existence of big-grossing films with evident Oscar credentials negatively impacted the chances of a couple of other ultra-mainstream contenders that had previously formed part of the awards conversation. “Remember that the academy expanded the number of best picture nominees with the express purpose of bringing more popular films into the mix, so many thought that The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall were exactly the kind of films that voters ought to be considering. But Les Misérables, Life of Pi and Django Unchained, huge hits from highly respected directors who had already won Oscars in one category or another, in effect ticked the populist box without having to go the action-franchise route.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010