Box Office Sabermetrics: Can Box Office Predict the Oscars?

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This is an inherently foolish question to ask. As I’m sure we’ve all learned by now, it’s foolish to try to predict the Best Picture winner for the Oscars, especially months in advance. It’s even more foolish to try to predict just based on the box office numbers of a film, just one of several categories that make a best picture winner, and a very small determining factor at that. So, I guess the more accurate question would be: Can we predict how much the best picture winner for the upcoming Oscars will make at the box office?

To see if this is possible, we’re going to look at the best picture winners from 2011-2015 as our data pool. We’re going to be looking at their box office in a few different categories to see if any trends show in the results. What we’re simply looking for are averages: average box office intake for the film with February serving as our cutoff date as the Oscars happen that month, average weeks of release before February, release dates and the average number of theaters in the film’s widest release. The five films of course are The King’s Speech, The Artist, Argo, 12 Years a Slave and Birdman.

When digging into the numbers for these films, a few surprising things jump out. For one, I knew that the Best Picture winners saw money, but I didn’t realize they were all bonafide box office hits. The highest end worldwide gross for one of these films was $414.21 million for The King’s Speech. The lowest grosser worldwide? Birdman with a whopping $103.21 million. What compounds the surprise in how lucrative these films ended up is the fact that the highest budget among the group was $44.5 million (Argo, the lone full blown studio picture among the bunch), with the other films landing in the $15-20 million range. An Oscar might cost a lot to make, but it doesn’t cost much to make an Oscar winning film.

It’s also worth noting that the release dates for these films ranged from Oct. 12th (Argo) to Nov. 26th (The King’s Speech) with the last three films being released in October. What this tells us is something that reinforces the title of “Oscar Season” that comes with this time of the year – the upcoming Best Picture winner is likely already in theaters right now. Based on these past five years, Oscar Season isn’t just a myth, it’s the launching pad for the Best Picture winner each year.

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Once we get into the average gross returns for these films, a clear trend begins to develop. The average gross to February for the Best Picture winner is $57.65 million, with a low of $18.01 million (The Artist) and a high of $118.34 (Argo). With the studio-backed Argo being the biggest outlier of the group, the average gross to the beginning of February demonstrates that the Best Picture winners had usually already made a profit even before the marketing boost of being able to slap “Best Picture Winner” kicked in. Of course, these big returns don’t just happen on their own as each film had good exposure to audiences. The average number of theaters in the widest release for these films was 2,054.8 theaters, meaning plenty of people had the opportunity to catch the Best Picture winner. Even the lowest released film, Birdman, played in over 1,200 theaters at one point. One interesting trend that develops here is a steady decrease in the number of theaters in widest release. With Argo the obvious outlier as the only wide studio released picture of the bunch, each of the other films show a continue decline in the amount of theaters the film screens in from 2500+ (The King’s Speech) down to just above 1200 (Birdman). Basically, the Oscar is continually going to independent releases with fewer exposure. Whether that’s a good thing or not is entirely subjective, but it is something that’s happening.

So, now that we have this information, does this answer our burning question? Yes and no. Yes, we do have a number to slap on the board to keep an eye on for the Best Picture race with $57.65 million, but the mere fact that so many other factors play into what wins the Best Picture pushes that number to the back of the conversation. Basically, what we can factually expect is that the Best Picture winner will have already made an impact on the box office before Oscar night. The Best Picture prize doesn’t always go to the most deserved film, but if these past five years show any indication, the Best Picture usually does go to a film that makes good money.

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