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Do Oscar nominations pay off at the box office?

One of the mysteries about the Oscars promotional season that now extends from September to February is how those publicity campaigns translate into real money. Why exactly do studios spend millions of dollars promoting their films and stars?

And not only the movies and their stars. Maclean's film critic Brian Johnson has an item on his blog this week which includes an e-mail from producer Robert Lantos about the best make-up nomination for Barney's Version.

"Nothing at the Oscars happens by accident," wrote Lantos. "Adrien Morot's much-deserved nomination was fought for. He was flown to L.A. in December for a special screening and Q&A with 'below the line' Academy members. And then again a couple of weeks ago for a presentation to the make-up branch. Ads were taken in the trades in support of his work and our L.A. publicist arranged interviews with him in the craft publications. This lobbying has been ongoing since November."

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Was all that time and money worth the trouble? Because the movie industry keeps its real financial numbers secret, we're left to academics and journalists to glean what information they can. Their research indicates that Oscar-nominated films benefit financially, but perhaps not as much as you think.

One 2001 study by Colby College professor Randy Nelson, found that movies that receive the big nominations - best picture, best actor and best actress - earned an average $7.8-million (U.S.) increase in profits back then, while a win would produce another $16-million. Those numbers are consistent with a article in 2009 that examined the box-office results from the previous four years, comparing official best-picture contenders with films that once carried Oscar hype but didn't get nominations. Slate calculated that nominated movies fetched, on average, $6.6-million more in ticket grosses than those that weren't short-listed.

Another 2005 study, titled For Oscar Glory or Oscar money? (in the Journal of Cultural Economics), concluded that a nomination in the best-picture or best-actor category could increase weekly box-office revenue by more than 200 per cent in weeks following a nomination. The later study claims the nomination, not the Oscar win, is what really affects the bottom line.

These averages don't tell us about different kinds of films. Blockbusters such as Toy Story 3 and Inception won't be affected by Oscar nods. Mid-budget films such as The Fighter, True Grit, The King's Speech and Black Swan will enjoy a substantial boost. But small films such as Winter's Bone, and last year's best picture-winner, The Hurt Locker, which were released early to avoid the December crush, were no longer in theatres and missed out on the box-office boost for their nominations.

Are the millions spent on Oscar promotions worth it to the studios? Apparently not by much, according to Harold Vogel, a media analyst and author of Entertainment Industry Economics." In the end," he says, "what you get mostly is bragging rights. It has an aura that is good for the studio. But when you count dollars and cents, don't expect it to move the needle very far."

For Edward Jay Epstein, author of The Hollywood Economist, the focus on the Oscar campaigns misses the larger picture: The Oscars are a spectacular "deception," he says, which emphasize marginal artistic films to distract audiences from Hollywood's real business, producing multi-platform commercial properties that include television programs, videos, games and toys.

The one undisputed winner from the Oscar publicity battles is the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. The hype drives TV ratings, and on its 2009 tax return, the academy listed revenues of $81-million, $74-million of which came from the annual awards show on TV that cost only $22-million to produce. As Larry Kasanoff, CEO of Threshold Entertainment, points out: "Award shows are great business. Give celebrities awards, and they will show up for free. That allows the award-show producer the opportunity to sell the show to the network for much more than it costs."

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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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