Best Picture Box Office: Who’s Ahead and Why It Matters

There’s always been a dicey relationship between the Academy’s voting members, its governing body, and the network that airs the ceremony. The former is focused on doing its job—picking the best picture of each year. The latter wants ratings and needs popular films to be nominated to get them. The governing body coordinates between the two, trying to please both.

The mid to late aughts was perhaps the most trying period between the groups. A scourge of unpopular nominees forced the Academy to make one of its most controversial rule changes. In 2005, none of the nominees surpassed $100 million at the box office. 2006 and 2007 only featured one each, and 2008 had two—but no Dark Knight.

Hence, (up to) 10 nominees for Best Picture today.

2012 has been an especially good year for everyone involved in the Oscars. Five of the nine Best Picture nominees have surpassed the $100 million mark, and two more have a legitimate shot at joining the centennial club. These are the standings as of January 26:

1) Lincoln – $167 million

2) Django Unchained – $146 million

3) Les Miserables – $137 million

4) Argo – $118 million

5) Life of Pi – $103 million

6) Zero Dark Thirty – $69.9 million

7) Silver Linings Playbook – $69.5 million

8) Beasts of the Southern Wild – $11.5 million

9) Amour – $1.82 million

Now, we must remember while considering these numbers when each film was released. Most are reaching the end of their theatrical runs while two are in the thick of it. Zero Dark Thirty wasn’t widely released until January 11 and has been putting up solid national numbers since then. It could surpass Life of Pi before all is said and done.

Silver Linings Playbook was given a technical wide release on Christmas Day, playing in about 745 theaters, but didn’t break 2,000 cinemas until January 18. In its second week in what I’ll call legitimate wide release, it dropped approximately 7 percent from $10.7 million to an even $10 million. Look for its run to keep going past the Oscars on February 24th.

So what does it all mean for the Best Picture race? Quite a bit. Although Django Unchained’s incredible numbers are to be ignored (too controversial for the Academy and has won exactly zero important precursor awards), every other contender’s financial tally has a story to tell.

Lincoln – $167 million

Steven Spielberg’s pet project has been doing work since its release in early November. Spurred on by an enticing cast, big name director, and historical precedence, Lincoln is your Best Picture favorite because of more than just its Oscar-friendly pedigree but its booming box office, as well.

Les Miserables – $137 million

This looks like a pretty fantastic total, doesn’t it? Well, it is and it isn’t. While it’s the fourth highest grossing musical of all time (and soon to be #3), it’s going to fall short of the last sing-a-long to win Best Picture. Chicago made a whopping $170 million in 2002, and Les Miserables’ pre-release buzz had it topping that with ease. Now, it’s Best Picture chances parallel its box office performance: mixed at best.

Argo – $118 million

Surprise, surprise. No, I’m not talking about the reactions to Ben Affleck’s Iran-set thriller winning Best Picture from the Critics Choice Awards, Golden Globes, or Producers Guild. I’m referencing what financial pundits everywhere had to be saying after a foreign-set, political thriller racked up more money than any other Ben Affleck movie since Pearl Harbor. Yes, it’s even made more than The Town.

Apply that to what’s happened after Affleck’s shocking Oscar snub and you see a pattern Argo is hoping to take all the way to the Dolby Theater. It just might do it, too.

Life of Pi – $103 million

While it’s technical wizardry cannot be ignored, any movie that was said to be the next Avatar had to hope for more than $100 million in America. Sure, it’s racked up four times that oversees, but that’s not going to help it win an American award. This spiritual metaphor just didn’t click like its producers had hoped domestically, and despite its 11 Oscar nods (almost all of which are for technical categories), Pi shouldn’t expect a miraculous Best Picture win.

Zero Dark Thirty – $69.9 million

Silver Linings Playbook – $69.5 million

We touched on these a bit earlier, so I’ll keep it brief. While I’d like to say both films still have a shot at the top prize on Oscar night if their box office keeps moving forward, it’s pretty clear that’s not true. Only Silver Linings Playbook can steal the Best Picture prize thanks to its key nominations in Directing and Editing. Zero Dark Thirty looks like it was just a little too late getting out there. Hats off to the Weinsteins yet again for their brilliantly slow roll out of SLP.

Beasts of the Southern Wild – $11.5 million

Amour – $1.82 million

Despite sneaking in shocking nominations for Best Picture and Director, neither of these box office duds have a shot at winning thanks to their disappointing totals domestically. I don’t care that they’re independent, low-budget flicks. Any movie with this kind of free press should make more than either of these have (granted, Beasts was out of theaters well before nominations came out, so it may be cleaning up on DVD).

Thanks for playing. Enjoy the show. Don’t worry about getting up.

So who has the edge? Much like the precursor awards have lead us to believe, Lincoln and Argo will be battling for the top spot come Oscar night with Silver Linings Playbook hanging around, hoping for an upset. It should come as no surprise all three are huge hits with audiences as well as critics. After all, if we’ve learned anything from the Academy’s past it’s this: greed is good.