LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- The major studios traditionally spend an average of $15 million to $20 million to market their films during Academy Awards season to secure a nomination. Yet, research firm Media by Numbers looked at 24 years of best-picture nominees, from 1982 to 2006, and found that the average nomination boosted box office by only $13 million.
Clearly the math doesn't add up -- unless you're a graduate of the Harvey Weinstein school of marketing.
"Let me tell you, a nomination, in the period between now and the Oscars, is still huge," said the iconic Hollywood producer, speaking about the best-picture nomination of the Weinstein Co.'s "The Reader."
"The effect will be enormous at the box office. Now we're going to double, triple, maybe even quintuple our gross. It's still the Good Housekeeping seal of approval."
According to Fandango, "The Reader" saw a 238% increase in online ticket sales in the 24 hours after it received its best-picture nod. Its box-office grosses increased 9%, despite the fact that the Weinstein Co. had the film in 50 fewer theaters than the weekend before.
'Keep up with Harvey'
But not everyone is Harvey Weinstein. He is widely detested throughout Hollywood's studio marketing departments, and not just because he's racked up scores of best-picture nominees over the years. Rather, he is hated for securing best-picture nominations with frugality amounting to, as one rival put it through gritted teeth, what the big studios spend annually on Snapple.
The major studios usually spend between $15 million and $20 million to try to "keep up with Harvey" in recent Oscar contests, according to various studio marketing chiefs, though the economy has dampened the spending somewhat this year.
But the payoff at the box office is relative. The smaller a nominated film's production budget, the more worthwhile its Oscar box-office boost, regardless of the size of that boost. For a specialty studio release with no marketable stars, such as Fox Searchlight's "Slumdog Millionaire," the post-nomination sales are a lot more meaningful than for, say, a CGI extravaganza with Brad Pitt that has been in theaters only a month. "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" cost $150 million to make.
For "Slumdog," the Best Picture nomination amounts to a bonanza. "I am sure it's the most profitable nominee [this year]," Mr. Weinstein said. Indeed, in the weekend following its best-picture nomination, Fox Searchlight's $15 million "Slumdog" grossed $10.6 million -- an 83% increase in box office that was helped by adding 833 theaters, despite the fact that the movie had been out for 11 weeks already.
The ultra-low cost of "Slumdog" also means that Searchlight is in a better position than other nominees' studios to keep spending on the film's marketing. Searchlight declined to comment.
On the flip side, an Oscar nomination for best picture can't save an unpopular film, and the cost of exploiting a nomination can even wind up hurting a film financially. Universal's drama "Frost/Nixon," for example, grossed just $3 million at the box office in its post-nomination weekend. That was a leap of 351%, aided by adding nearly a thousand theaters to the film's release pattern. But consider that "Frost" cost $25 million to make, and with a worldwide gross of just $14 million so far, any box-office bump from an Oscar nomination is likely to be more than eclipsed by the cost of the film's Oscar marketing campaign, estimated to be near $8 million.
What's an Oscar nomination worth? More than a winAs Paul Dergarabedian, CEO of Media by Numbers, will rush to tell you, each year there are a cluster of ever-changing variables around a winning film that could keep audiences out of theaters: Are the nominated films all still in theaters? Of limited commercial appeal? Toward the end of their runs? Filled with big stars who're also nominated? If you can't see the film or don't want to, the win makes any average Best Picture Oscar boost "essentially meaningless."
Worse, as Mr. Dergarabedian notes, while there's potential payoff in a nomination (see story, this page) continuing to wage the marketing war to secure a win is only rarely worth the extra expense when it comes to the box office.
"The Oscar honeymoon period is by far the most fruitful," he said, referring to the time between a film's nomination and the Oscar telecast. "In fact, the honeymoon is often more fun than the marriage -- the win. You get the most box-office benefit out of that period before."
But regardless, the Oscar marketing battle must often be continued after a nomination, not out of any sense that victory is imminent or even because it's financially worthwhile. Instead, it's to preserve relationships with stars and directors. This is Hollywood, after all.