Box Office Analysis
March 8, 2006
After watching attendance and box office numbers plunge in 2005, it seems fitting that the film industry would name "Crash" as the year's best picture.
For one thing, the picture's title puts the perfect exclamation point on a year in which Hollywood suffered through the steepest year-to-year attendance drop in two decades.
Add in the fact that "Crash" ranks as the least popular best picture winner ever at the Academy Awards in terms of total tickets sold, and you've got the ideal capper for a dismal year.
Not that the industry's woes can be pinned on "Crash." Independently produced for $6.5 million, the film made a respectable and profitable $53.4 million in Lionsgate's theatrical release last summer, and there's a little more on the way, thanks to a post-Oscars rerelease in theaters this weekend.
But this marks the first time since "The English Patient" nine years ago that a best picture winner hasn't crossed the $100 million level. And if ticket price inflation is taken into account, "The English Patient" would actually top the century mark in today's market.
That makes "The Last Emperor" — with a $44-million gross in 1987 that adjusts to a $70 million return today — as the last best picture king to come up short of $100 million.
The academy also shot itself in the foot this year by snubbing pre-show front-runner "Brokeback Mountain," the only best picture candidate with a chance at riding into $100 million territory.
How grim were the numbers this season? With an aggregated $235.6 million in the till as of the Oscars telecast, the five best picture nominees were the least attended batch on record, easily wresting that distinction from last year's crop, which had $344.8 million at the same point.
Last year's best picture low point portended a dire year at the box office, and results at the 78th Academy Awards don't bode well for 2006 overall. Though there may be no direct correlation between the Academy Awards and the box office to come, they are the closest thing in Hollywood to an annual state of the industry summation.
Judging by Sunday's proceedings, the industry isn't looking good for the year ahead. As expected, Sunday's Oscar telecast was one of the least watched ever, coming in at 38.8 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research, or 8% less than last year.
Those who did tune in saw an academy that was practically apologetic for the movies it nominated, pleading with viewers to see movies in theaters by highlighting famous movies from the past that people can no longer see in theaters. The desperation even permeated the set design, which featured a gaudy marquee and box office on stage — not-so-subliminal reminders for viewers to go to the movies.
Politically charged pictures were nominated, yet political statements and jokes were absent during the show. The winners were largely unmemorable, and no attempt was made to explain why these nominees and winners were worth seeing (presentations of the best picture nominees were relegated to ads before and after the commercial breaks).
From a box office perspective, the "Crash" win is not surprising. Even with its marginal numbers, it was the second-highest grossing nominee, and in the past 15 years, the Oscar went to the No. 2 movie two-thirds of the time.
The four instances it went to the top grosser ("Forrest Gump," "Titanic," "Gladiator," "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King") came when those pictures were overwhelming box office favorites and epics. "Brokeback Mountain" was neither.
Oddly, the other advantage "Crash" had was that it came out earlier in the year. Not only did that enhance its underdog status and make it easier for Lionsgate to distribute 130,000 DVDs throughout the industry, but the academy was due for another winner that hadn't opened at the end of the year.
"Gladiator" was the last instance five years ago, preceded by "Braveheart" five years before that. All three pictures originally bowed in May, and each of their years (1995, 2000, 2005) had seen declines in attendance, although none so sharply as 2005.
As for "Crash," ultimately it was the movie seen by most of the academy, and it's the movie that blatantly tried to wrench the most emotions out viewers, including a scene where a little girl may or may not have been shot. The Oscars are a sucker for sentiment, even if it's the clichéd and unearned kind.
"Brokeback Mountain" packed an emotional wallop no doubt, but it was quiet and subtle because it was a movie about repression. It's a picture that lingers and will be remembered. It's questionable whether the same will be said of "Crash."
|How best picture box office affects Oscar viewership (in millions)|
|Year||Nominees' Total as of Telecast||Viewership||Best Picture Winner||Winner Gross as of Telecast|
|2005||$344.8||42.1||Million Dollar Baby||$64.9|
|2004||$703.1||43.5||Return of the King||$364.1|
|2002||$581.6||41.8||A Beautiful Mind||$154.7|
|1999||$383.2||45.6||Shakespeare in Love||$73.2|
|1997||$275.5||40.1||The English Patient||$63.5|
|Source: Box Office Mojo, LLC (www.boxofficemojo.com)|