The Oscars boost: how awards season plays out at the box office

Prize speculation helps to sell tickets, but with a glut of quality films released just in time to qualify for the big awards, the chances of cashing in diminish.

Charles Gant

Little Women (2019)

Little Women (2019)

In January 2019, UK box office suffered a notable decline compared with the first month of 2018: down 18 per cent. A number of factors contributed to that: one was that awards season didn’t throw up anything as potent as La La Land (from 2017) or Darkest Hour (2018). The Favourite performed heroically, grossing £17 million, but overall this crucial period for arthouse and independent cinemas left many operators disappointed.

The reason for the concentration of titles in January is simple: films must be released before the Bafta Film Awards ceremony to be eligible. This year, operators have been pretty delighted by the commercial success of the films on offer. Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, released on Boxing Day, has scored a nifty £16.4 million in its first 25 days – ahead of the pace of The Favourite last year. Backer Sony must now surely have £20 million in its sights for this film.

Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Disney chose 1 January to launch Jojo Rabbit – nicely sandwiched between Little Women and Sam Mendes’s 1917. Taika Waititi’s Hitler-themed comedy has delivered a decent £5.48 million at UK cinemas after 19 days, and should go on to match the likes of past awards-season hits such as The Shape of Water (£7.7 million), conceivably pushing towards Green Book (£10.1 million).

But it’s 1917 that is really exciting the UK’s exhibition sector with a sensational £18.4 million in its first ten days. Even fast-burning Hollywood franchise films usually achieve three times their opening number (which would take 1917 to £22 million-plus), and awards-season fare usually does much better than that. Dunkirk achieved 5.6 times its opening number, and Darkest Hour 5.9 times. Based on those numbers, look for 1917 to crash through the £40 million barrier at UK cinemas.

Uncut Gems (2019)

Uncut Gems (2019)

The success of these titles and with Netflix’s Uncut Gems helped Nottingham indie venue the Broadway Cinema to get its strongest audiences for more than a year in the second weekend of January, according to programme director Caroline Hannigan, with audiences “across the age spectrum”. She notes that Little Women has skewed female, but also crossed the generations, with 29 per cent of the audience under 25. “Never underestimate the power of a weepy,” she advises. Jojo Rabbit “worked well with family audiences”, 1917 “skewed male and older”, while Uncut Gems “has been the hipster choice of the month”, with 31 per cent under 25.

As usual, the sheer number of releases in January is worrisome. On 17 January Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, Jay Roach’s Bombshell, Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy and Trey Edward Shults’s Waves all landed in cinemas still doing great business with 1917, Little Women, Jojo Rabbit and Uncut Gems. Later in January came A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, Queen & Slim, Richard Jewell and The Lighthouse. With all these films competing for the same cinema screens, casualties are to be expected.


Foreign-language cinema

Pain and Glory (2019)

Pain and Glory (2019)

The films competing for the foreign-language category of the Oscars – now called International Film – and Baftas offer unusual collective commercial clout. Nominated for both are Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite and Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory. Parasite (released in the UK on 3 February) has already grossed $$28.5 million in the US, $73.6 million in South Korea, and $143 million worldwide. Pain and Glory has grossed $36.3 million worldwide. Bafta-nominated The Farewell and Portrait of a Lady on Fire have respectively grossed $19.6 million and $4.9 million worldwide.

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