This Year's Big Oscar Contenders Have Hardly Made A Dent In The Box Office

2021 is in the books and, with the early months of any year largely devoid of big movies, it paves the way for cinema buffs to focus on awards season to kick off 2022. That will get going in a big way next month when the Academy Awards nominations are announced on February 8. However, the problem is that the Oscars will be facing another uphill battle this year, not unlike the hurdles faced last year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Many of the movies that are going to be up for major awards have been seen by a woefully small number of moviegoers, relatively speaking, and that's not good.

Even though the box office recovered in 2021, it was still a far cry from what we saw in 2019, and one of the biggest factors is that smaller movies, often the kinds that garner awards season love, aren't pulling in the big bucks. Unless you're a Netflix movie like "The Power of the Dog" or "Don't Look Up," it's a drop in the bucket relative to the overall movie-loving public. Only a small percentage of general audiences have seen many of the films likely to be nominated for Best Picture. As such, we could be looking at another paltry year for Oscars telecast ratings, similar to last year when "Nomadland" took home the night's top prize. If so, it will likely bring about disastrous consequences for the variety of movies we see produced in the future.

By the Numbers

For the purposes of this article, we're going to look at a dozen movies that are widely considered to be in the conversation for Best Picture, as that category will be of most interest and those movies will likely dominate the other Oscars categories as well. This will paint a picture of just how bleak the situation is. It should be noted that Netflix, Amazon and most streaming services do not release box office figures, so some movies won't have a number attached. That being said, these releases tend not to draw big audiences as these movies are available to stream for free at the click of a button, which gets to the heart of the issue, really. Here are some of the most buzzed about movies, in no particular order, along with their domestic box office, as well as the worldwide box office numbers, if the movie has been released internationally.

  • "Belfast" – $6.9 million
  • "The Power of the Dog" – Netflix, N/A
  • "Dune" – $106 million domestic/$394.5 million worldwide
  • "West Side Story" – $29.5 million domestic/$52.7 million worldwide
  • "Licorice Pizza" – $6.3 million
  • "King Richard" – $14.6 million domestic/$26.7 million worldwide
  • "The Tragedy of Macbeth" – Apple, N/A
  • "Drive My Car" – $324 thousand domestic/$2.1 million worldwide
  • "Don't Look Up" – Netflix, N/A
  • "Being the Ricardos" – Amazon, N/A
  • "Nightmare Alley" – $7.5 million domestic
  • "Tick Tick...Boom!" – Netflix, N/A

As we can see, the only movie with a large theatrical audience is "Dune," which was also available to stream on HBO Max in the U.S., as was "King Richard." The only other movies with sizable audiences were released by streaming services and, in many cases, audiences engage with streaming movies somewhat passively. It's churn-and-burn, not necessarily resulting in the kind of engagement that would make a viewer care as to whether or not those movies garner awards season love. Hence, things are looking pretty rough for this year's potential nominees.

The Oscars telecast drew in a record-low of 10.4 million viewers last year, compared to the 23.6 million viewers in 2020. It stands to reason, if the movies nominated didn't generate much interest with moviegoers, it will be tough to get a big audience to tune into an overlong awards show honoring those sparsely seen movies.

This Doesn't Bode Well

Let's go all the way back to 2019, which feels like an eternity ago. That year, the Oscars had a crop of eight movies nominated for Best Picture, and they all, for the most part, did reasonably well at the box office. The movies include the Best Picture winner Green Book ($321 million), "Black Panther" ($1.3 billion), "BlacKkKlansman" ($93 million), "Bohemian Rhapsody" ($911 million), "The Favourite" ($95 million), "Roma" (Netflix, N/A), "A Star Is Born" ($436 million), and "Vice" ($76 million). It's quite easy to see the stark difference when the low bar just three years ago was "$76 million, whereas this year none of the potential nominees are anywhere near that mark.

It feels like an entirely different world where "Parasite," which won Best Picture in 2020, could generate enough buzz to earn $53 million domestic and $263 million worldwide. It's not just the pandemic that continues to rage on anymore. Consumer habits have changed, largely thanks to the accessibility of streaming, and these sorts of movies are struggling to find a home in the new landscape.

A Potentially Grim Future

Herein lies the issue: if movies nominated for Oscars can't also generate money, studios will have little motivation to make them. At best, they will be made by Netflix or other streaming services and given token theatrical releases just so that they can qualify for Oscar nominations. It won't be about the cinematic experience brought on by these wonderful films. It will be about generating subscriber dollars with grabby titles while studios continue to rely almost entirely on franchise entries to keep the box office alive. This is a grim image of the future, and I say this as a man who makes no bones about the fact that he values movies primarily as entertainment and loves blockbuster cinema.

As for the answer to this problem, we can only hope that the box office recovery in 2022 and beyond extends to more than just blockbusters. For those who wish to see a wider variety of options in the marketplace, I encourage you to vote with your dollars, because that's really the only vote that counts in Hollywood.

"The 94th Academy Awards" are set to air Sunday, March 27 at 8:00 P.M. EST/5:00 P.M. PST on ABC.