You don't always have to be a box office hit to get the Oscars to pay attention to you. In fact, in the last few years, it's almost been a hindrance-- The Hurt Locker (total domestic box office: $17 million) edged out Avatar (total domestic box office: $760 million) for Best Picture, while last year The Artist (total domestic box office: $44 million) ran away with the entire awards season, cruising past competition like The Help ($169 million) and Moneyball ($75 million).
But this year's Oscar race is already looking unusually favorable to major studio releases, and those films almost always benefit from big box office-- runaway, beloved audience hits with great reviews usually get Best Picture nominations, if not wins (unless they're superhero movies, of course). Argo, a Warner Bros. release, has made a healthy $43 million already, and coupled with exuberant reviews is now strongly positioned as a Best Picture nominee. This week sees the British release of Sony's Skyfall, a Bond movie that, as I mentioned last week, very much deserves Best Picture consideration-- and when it inevitably becomes a hit, that will only help it get there. And as the holiday season approaches, there are a whole ton of studio films-- Les Miserables, Life of Pi, Django Unchained, This is 40-- angling to both win the box office and Oscar buzz in one fell swoop.
This is the part where you probably want me to talk about The Avengers, the year's most successful movie and the one that, based on the comments I've been getting, you all think deserves more than an "Outside Chance" at Best Picture. But superhero movies remain the spot where the "box office success + critical raves = Oscars" formula falls apart. The Academy is still feeling some of the backlash from their snub of The Dark Knight in 2008, which many believe led them to open up the Best Picture category to 10 nominees (now a sliding scale of 5-10, depending on how many votes they get) and probably helped Inception get a nod two years later. The Avengers is in some ways this year's The Dark Knight, the runaway box office success that everybody saw, and the only summer movie that seemed to universally get people excited.
But even with all that success, The Academy will find it all too easy to ignore The Avengers, because it combines three things the Oscars have always been practically allergic to: superheroes, comedy and franchises. The superhero bias is pretty well-established at this point, but it's worth noting that nothing has actually changed since the Dark Knight snub-- there still hasn't been a superhero movie that came even close to the Best Picture roster. The comedy bias is well-established too, and goes back way longer than superhero movies have been around. The comedies nominated for Best Picture in the last dozen years or so-- The Descendants, The Kids Are All Right, Up in the Air, Juno-- are all dramedies at best, and all come with the indie-style stamp that makes them feel real, even if a bit light-hearted. The Avengers is far from all comedy, but it's best moments are often laugh lines; if the first time the Oscars seemed to be taking superheroes even remotely serious was when Batman went super-dark with The Dark Knight, a lighter take on the genre isn't likely to turn their heads.
And finally, the franchise question. Yes, all three Lord of the Rings films got Best Picture nominations, and Return of the King won. Yes, Toy Story 3 was nominated just two years ago. But it's not hard to see those as exceptions to the rule-- the last sequel to be nominated before the Lord of the Rings franchise was The Godfather Part III, back in 1990, and God only knows how that even happened. Sure, The Avengers isn't technically a sequel-- but even comic nerds know that's splitting hairs. The Avengers is a big bundle of familiar characters who happen to wear funny costumes to save the world, and it takes the whole genre with a lighthearted attitude. That's what made the movie such an enormous success, but it's also what will keep it away from Best Picture.
That said, I'll still keep The Avengers as an outside chance, because you seriously never know-- I've been blindsided by Best Picture nominations in the past, God knows. But The Avengers is unlikely to win awards from critic's group as Best Picture, and is unlikely to get attention from the guilds as well-- though the Writer's Guild could pull off a nomination for Joss Whedon's script, which could easily lead to the movie's most high-profile Oscar nod. Feel free to argue with me in the comments about The Avengers's secret strengths-- I'm glad to see its devoted fans keeping the torch alive.
And one more note on box office-- keep an eye on Cloud Atlas as it opens in theaters this weekend. I recognize that not everyone loves the movie as much as I do, and i've kind of given up hope that it will be a major player for awards this year. But if it opens strong, Warner Bros. may feel inclined to push harder for Cloud Atlas among their other awards contenders. We'll see how that box office pans out in next week's column.
And now, on to the charts, where there's still not a lot of change, but there's a desperate plea for someone to finally make the Best Supporting Actress category interesting.
No changes in the rankings here, though as mentioned above Argo continues to look strong with its box office success. Last night I also noticed the first TV spot for Life of Pi, airing nearly a month before its scheduled November 21 release. That's an interesting sign of how much faith Fox has in the movie, and could mean it's being positioned as that runaway box office + critical hit I talked about above. Or it could be this year's Hugo-- technically gorgeous and critically beloved, but not necessarily a huge hit. We've got more than a month to wait that one out, unfortunately.
STILL IN THE RUNNING