There have been many headlines this year around the poor box office performance of some high profile Oscar contenders. Even more vocal has been the assertion that box office doesn’t matter. For every “Toy Story 3,” “Avatar” or any other blockbuster, there’s an “Amour,” “Whiplash” or “Room” that can’t crack $15 million. However, maybe a film’s final box office isn’t what we should be looking at. In fact, many movies have barely opened before getting into the Best Picture race. Perhaps what we should be looking at is a movie’s per theater average (PTA). Especially for limited release indies, a strong per theater average indicates that there is interest from the NY/LA population, which is where Oscar voters primarily reside. Taking a look at the per theater averages of all Best Picture Oscar nominees since the expansion in 2009 provides some interesting findings.

  • All Best Picture nominees since 2009 that opened in limited release had a PTA at or above $18,463.
    • Only 2 movies opened with per theater averages under $20,000 – “Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close” (which opened on a Sunday, so I used it’s first full weekend) and “Hell or High Water” (which opened in 32 theaters, compared to most others which opened in under 10 theaters).
  • All Best Picture nominees since 2009 that opened in wide release had a PTA at or above $5,000.
    • “War Horse” also opened on a Sunday, so its second weekend was used. It’s per theater average for that weekend was $5,663 so the rule still stands.

Limited Release Films

Limited Release Films Per Theater Averages
The Favourite  $105,000
Eighth Grade  $65,949
If Beale Street Could Talk  $56,119
Mary Queen of Scots  $48,694
Boy Erased  $41,411
Can You Ever Forgive Me?  $32,302
The Wife  $27,071
First Reformed  $24,391
Leave No Trace  $24,349
Cold War  $18,118
The Hate U Give  $14,223
Green Book  $12,817
Capernaum  $8,329

The average PTA of a Best Picture nominee that opens in under 10 theaters stands at $70,324. This includes nine movies that achieved PTAs over $100K. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” currently holds the record for the past 9 years, with a PTA of $202,792. This year, only one film possesses a PTA above this $70K average – “The Favourite” ($105K PTA). This doesn’t necessarily guarantee the film a Best Picture nomination (see “Steve Jobs”). However, it does set it apart from the other underperformers this year on this front.

So let’s use a $20K PTA as a cutoff, especially for movies opening in under 10 theaters. What films, this year, are in trouble? Looking at Clayton’s predictions at the Circuit Hub, most of the movies in his top 25 are safe. Only two foreign films fall below this cutoff – “Cold War” ($18,118 PTA) and “Capernaum” ($8,329). The only foreign film nominated for Best Picture since the expansion was “Amour,” which had a per theater average of $22,755.

If we expand this cut off to limited release films that opened in 10-100 theaters, things get dicier for one of our top contenders. “Green Book” would have the lowest per-theater average for a film that opened in limited release since the expansion. The film opened right before Thanksgiving to a disappointing $320K from 25 theaters for a per theater average of $12,817, far below $20K. This falls between the performance of “Still Alice” ($16,417 PTA from 12 theaters) and “The Impossible” ($9,588 PTA from 15 theaters), both which missed out on Best Picture but got acting nominations. Could this spell trouble for “Green Book’s” chances in Best Picture? It may still get in, but this does indicate that the film’s lukewarm box office performance could hamper its chances of winning.

Wide Release Films

Wide Release Films Per Theater Averages
Black Panther  $50,250
A Quiet Place  $14,311
Bohemian Rhapsody  $12,765
A Star is Born  $11,641
Crazy Rich Asians  $7,834
BlackKklansman  $7,173
Mary Poppins Returns  $5,751
Widows  $4,410
First Man  $4,397
Vice  $3,181

The average PTA is $11,300 for a wide release film (over 1,000 theaters) that got nominated for Best Picture. Best Picture contenders such as “A Star is Born” ($11,641 PTA), “Bohemian Rhapsody” ($12,765 PTA), “A Quiet Place” ($14,311 PTA) and “Black Panther” ($50,250 PTA) are all above this. The Oscars have always had a dicey relationship with blockbusters, so a high PTA doesn’t necessarily mean a movie is more likely to get into Best Picture. However, having a low one in wide release can be deadly.

Since no Best Picture nominee since 2009 has had a PTA under $5K, which contenders are in trouble? “Widows” ($4,410 PTA), “First Man” ($4,397 PTA) and “Vice” ($3,181 PTA) all fall below this threshold. “Widows” has already missed at the major precursors, so it’s no surprise that it won’t make it into Best Picture. The other two titles are more surprising. The poor box office for “First Man” has been a deterrent for awards prognosticators for a while. This only further indicates the Critics Choice nominee may miss come Oscar morning.

The case for a “Vice” snub seems even more surprising. Even while opening on the busy Christmas weekend, the film failed to connect with major audiences. The film’s performance recalls two other Christmas Oscar hopefuls for adults. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” once had Best Picture hopes, only to open with a PTA of $4,382. It went on to five Oscar nominations, including Best Actress, but missed Best Picture. Just last year, “All the Money in the World” made headlines with the recasting of Christopher Plummer in place of Kevin Spacey. Those headlines couldn’t help the film’s box office. The film opened to a per theater average of $2,693 over the Christmas holiday. In the end, Plummer was the only nominee for the film. It’s possible that if “Vice” doesn’t make up any box office ground, it could end up with some acting nods but nothing else.

Overall

As with any metric, prognosticators should judge everything holistically. Per theater averages aren’t what Oscar voters are thinking about when they fill out their ballots. However, this seems to be one signal of a film’s level of support and buzz both within the NY/LA crowds and in the overall country. “Green Book,” “First Man” and “Vice” aren’t out of Best Picture for sure. However, this combined with controversy, poor precursor performance or mixed reviews, respectively, could oust these titles from the big prize.

Be sure to check out our Official Oscar Predictions Page to see where this year’s films and performances rank among the contenders!