It’s such an interesting year to test the Oscar stats. Even Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan is not 100% on board on with The Revenant being a surefire winner as most others are. Why didn’t it win the Producers Guild award? Why didn’t it get a SAG Ensemble award nomination? Those questions still haunt this year’s wildly unpredictable race. But it’s harder to argue with a total of 12 Oscar nominations. Except, when we look more closely, you see that in all the years of the preferential ballot, there have only ever been four Best Picture nominees with 12 nominations heading in. Of those, only one – The King’s Speech – won Best Picture. The other two did not: Song of Bernadette and Lincoln. The Revenant is the fourth.
The other interesting stat to note is that in the recent years where the preferential ballot was in play, no Best Picture winner won more than 6 Oscars total (The Hurt Locker). In most recent years, Best Picture has won as few as 3 or 4 Oscars, total. In split years, no Best Picture-winning film has ever won more than 3 Oscars.
Of course, in the years way way back, 1939’s Best Picture winner, Gone With the Wind, won 8 Oscars, plus two honorary awards. It also happened to win against some extremely strong cinematic classics such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, and The Wizard of Oz, although nothing comes close to Gone With the Wind’s $1.7 billion box-office (adjusted for inflation). Still, all things considered, The Revenant’s chances to sweep, Titanic-style, would have been higher with a five nominee lineup, rather than an eight picture lineup.
Why? Because with the expanded BP slate, the wins in the other categories tend to be divided up between the many outstanding films nominated for Best Picture. With more Best Picture nominees, there is more splitting up of the Oscar tallies per film. Last year, for instance, all but two of the Oscars were awarded to the eight Best Picture nominees. Compare that, for instance, to 2006 when nine of the Oscars went to movies that were not Best Picture nominees. In fact, you can probably figure out which films would have made it into the Best Picture circle under the current system by looking at what films won in the major categories, like Dreamgirls and Pan’s Labyrinth in 2006, for instance.
I’d also like to look at the amount of money made by the BP contenders because this seems to be driving the sudden last-minute rally for Iñárritu, and indeed could make the difference between a film being placed higher on the ballot and a film being placed lower. Everyone knows The Revenant cost a shit-ton of money. It could have been a disaster as the most expensive piece of art the Oscar race has seen in a while. But it has made enough money to break even and then made at least $30 million more domestically. That’s amazing. The money really is the big deal here because if the movie had bombed, there is no way it would be winning anything, no matter how artistically daring it is.
Traditionally, Oscar voters — and industry voters overall — like to see modest budgets with high-end returns. Given the choice, they’ll usually take the smaller budget over the larger budget, even when the big-budget film made its money back. The two exceptions I can think of recently would be The Departed and Return of the King. The reason is that the industry’s optimal vision for Best Picture is usually one that represents their artistic ideal. It has less to do with monetary success, since we all know that’s easy to come by with branding, and more to do with representation, as in, “this is the kind of film we’re supposed to stand for.” So in addition to The Revenant’s mixed reviews, it’s also a costly film that did make money. Let’s look at the way it’s gone down so far — using the pre-Oscars box-office totla rather than the ultimate total after the Oscars.
Birdman – cost $18 million / made $37 million, pre-Oscars. ($42 million total)
12 Years a Slave – cost $15 million / made $50 million ($56 million)
Argo – cost $44 million / made $129 million ($136 million)
The Artist – cost $15 million / made $31 million ($45 million)
The King’s Speech – cost $15 million / made $114 million ($135 million
The Hurt Locker – cost $15 / made $14 million ($17 million)
After they won Best Picture, their total profits went up a bit, but not by much. Most of the recent Oscar winners are nearing the end of their theatrical run by the time Oscar Night rolls around. Films that are released from October-December don’t get as much of a boost from winning Best Picture as they do from being nominated. January-February are the peak moneymaking months for most Oscar movies.
Still, you have to go back further to find winners that match The Revenant:
The Revenant – cost $132 million / made $160 million so far ($28 million more)
The Big Short – cost $28 million / made $65 million so far ($37 million)
Spotlight – cost $20 million / made $37 million so far ($17 million)
Mad Max – cost $150 million / made $153 million ($3 million)
With regards to percentage return on investment, The Big Short is actually turning in the highest profit margin so far, unless you start factoring in international hauls. I do think The Revenant will continue to make money, however. Obviously if The Big Short won, or Spotlight did, they might easily double their current box-office take.
The usual Oscar preference for a lower budget and higher return makes The Revenant an exception, but it’s in no way a deal breaker. The generally fewer numbers of Oscars awarded to Best Picture winners we’ve see with an expanded slate also makes it less likely for a Revenant blowout; instead, it’s more probably that we’ll see a split between The Revenant winning BP and other categories spreading the wealth. Still, The Revenant could easily win six and be within the recent margins:
The Sound categories could go to Mad Max: Fury Road, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, or something else.
Or it could easily split in other ways, with The Big Short taking Picture, Screenplay, Editing and The Revenant taking, again, six Oscars with Director, Actor, Cinematography, makeup, Visual Effects, Sound, Sound Editing.
We still say The Revenant is the safest bet for Best Picture. But there are stumbling blocks for a big sweep in terms of recent patterns and history.