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One Possible Explanation for Why So Many Oscar Contenders Have Flopped This Year

Sometimes, good movies don’t make money.  No matter how many critics and film bloggers scream, “This film is amazing.  You owe it to yourself to go see it,” audiences will stay away.  Eh, it happens.  You win some, you lose some.  Oh, well.  There’s always home video/Netflix and the possibility of a financial boost down the line from any potential Oscar nominations.  History is always the true judge of quality.  If the film is good enough, audiences will find it, eventually.

2015 has been weird, though.  With the end of the year fast approaching many are looking back and realizing, “Wait, have all of the Oscar contenders flopped already?”

At the moment, everyone is excited that both Spotlight, a drama about the Boston Globe’s investigation of the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal, and Brooklyn, a period romance about an Irish woman adjusting to life in America, opened respectably in limited release.  But that was the same story for Steve Jobs, and it bombed so hard upon its wide release that the studio just dropped it from 2,000 theaters, clearly waving the white flag.  Will Spotlight or Brooklyn do much better?  What does that mean for Bryan Cranston’s Black List drama Trumbo, which also just debuted in limited release but to sub-par numbers?  What about Room, Brie Larson’s slam-dunk Best Actress nomination flick which has been playing in limited release since mid-October?

Films like these live on the margins, and when they fail to break through earlier in the year it’s not out of the ordinary.  Who was worrying about Danny Collins, Clouds of St. Milas and I’ll You See You In My Dreams flopping in March, April and May, respectively?  However, far more attention is paid to them at this time of the year because we are now in Oscar season meaning that come awards time we could again be talking about a batch of nominated movies that very few people actually went out to see, except worse than usual.  Last year, at least St. Vincent, Birdman, The Imitation Game and Wild found a decent-sized audience.  This year, Bradley Cooper’s Burnt and Sandra Bullock’s Our Brand Is Crisis have been soundly rejected by audiences, turning into possibly the biggest turkeys of each actor’s career, yet each film could earn an Oscar nomination for its star, more so Bullock than Cooper.

burnt_and_our_brand_is_crisis_-h_2015_On a case-by-case basis, you can conjure plenty of explanations for the struggles of each individual awards contender.  Quite often, the culprit is the marketing (Burnt, Our Brand is Crisis, The Walk, Southpaw, although it didn’t flop).  Sometimes you blame a bad title (Clouds of St. Milas, Truth) or poor timing (I’ll See You in My Dreams, Diary of a Teenage Girl).  Other times, there’s something entirely unique to that individual movie, like Beasts of No Nation and Netflix.  A lot of the times, it comes down to quality, and, sorry, movies like The Water Diviner, Freeheld, Truth, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Ricki and the Flash, Black Mass and 99 Homes just weren’t good enough.  You can always point to market saturation.  Maybe there’s been too many similar films out at the same time (Everest and The Walk, Dope and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Truth and Spotlight) as well as way too many “ripped-from-the-headlines” stories which already have fantastic documentaries (that applies to Our Brand is Crisis, The Walk , Everest and Black Mass, to name a few).

It’s usually a combination of things.  Steve Jobs didn’t just suffer from Aaron Sorkin-fatigue.  It also terrible word-of-mouth from everyone who actually knew the real Jobs, the pre-existing Ashton Kutcher Jobs movie, the way all of the details of the production were leaked in the Sony hack, etc.

Overall, it’s been an all-or-none kind of year with just as many disappointments (Tomorrowland, Terminator: Genisys) as record-shattering hits (Furious 7, Jurassic World), leaving little middle ground.  In that environment, maybe it’s just been a down year for prestige movies.  The glee coming out of the film festivals hasn’t been quite as gleeful as usual.  The mid-budget studio hits, Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Woman in Gold, haven’t hit as big as similar movies have in recent years.   Maybe Inside Out is simply a far better movie than any of the Awards-bait we’ve seen thus far, and audiences responded appropriately. Maybe Charlize Theron is truly more amazing in Mad Max: Fury Road than Carey Mulligan in the costume drama Far From the Madding Crowd or Carey Mulligan…in the costume drama Suffragette.  Maybe we bought more tickets to see Dope than Me and Earl and the Girl Dying Girl not just because it’s a better movie but also because it seemed like it would be so much more fun to watch.

That last bit might not be too far off from the truth.  As Hollywood pundits look at the boulevard of broken Oscar contenders this year, they have noticed one potential unifying trend: Maybe audiences simply don’t want to be depressed at the movie’s this year.

Bing Bong
Not fair. This guy snuck up on us.

THR writer Stephen Galloway recently argued, “It’s a puzzle to me why audiences are staying away from some very good films. Are we living in a Depression-era mentality, where people just want escapism — the present day equivalent of Busby Berkeley musicals? I wonder if there’s a holdover effect from the Great Recession, where ticket-buyers are simply reluctant to see anything that isn’t branded as a great ride.”

However, Variety had a more well-rounded reaction:

Improvements in the size and quality of televisions, as well as the wealth of quality small-screen programming remain popular culprits. But some distribution executives believe there are other things at play. As evidence, they point to a presidential election that has elevated outsiders like Donald Trump and Ben Carson to front-runner status and given vent to screeds against illegal immigration, Wall Street malfeasance, and the worthlessness of the political classes. People are mad and dissatisfaction is the order of the day.

“I think society is depressed,” said one veteran distribution executive. “People do not want to see things that disturb them. The entertainment factor is critical right now. Audiences don’t want to feel like they’re being punished.”

Pictures like Bridge of Spies appear to be taking hold, the executive argues, because they present an optimistic view of humanity. Unlike in Truth, where journalistic errors lead to a discredited report, or Steve Jobs,  a warts-and-all portrait of a prickly billionaire, the films that work are the ones where ordinary, decent people triumph.

The Martian
Good, decent person triumphing? Check!

We are barely to mid-November at this point.  Some of Oscar’s big-hitters, like David O. Russell’s latest Jennifer Lawrence showcase Joy, Tarantino’s Hateful Eight, Leonardo DiCaprio’s hellish The Revenant and Will Smith’s NFL drama Concussion, are still on the horizon, and the Academy loves to nominate the hell out of anything David O. Russell and Tarantino put their names on.  We’ve also yet to see Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie’s By the Sea, Eddie Redmayne’s The Danish Girl, Cate Blanchette’s Carol, Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth and Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea.  Plus, don’t count out Michael B. Jordan in Creed.

The first major ceremony of the awards season, the Hollywood Film Awards, delivered statuettes to Carey Mulligan for Suffragette, Will Smith for Concussion, Saoirse Ronan for Brooklyn, Jane Fonda for Youth, Alicia Vikander for The Danish Girl, Benicio Del Toro for Sicario and and Joel Edgerton for Black Mass.

Will Smith HFA
“Of all the awards I’ve won, this is the latest”

Of those winners, only Sicario and Black Mass were movies which had expanded beyond Los Angeles or New York.  Heck, Concussion, Youth and The Danish Girl aren’t even out yet.  That’s typical of the early awards shows, though.  You give out awards before anyone’s seen the dang movies, and then those awards are used as marketing hooks to entice people to go out and see the movies once they finally make it to your town. But by the time we reach the Oscars on February 28th how many acceptance speeches will we see from actors and filmmakers who worked on movies that no one really saw?  That’s been the narrative for a while, but in 2015 it seems that more and more of these types of movies are outright losing money as opposed to at least managing a meager profit.

The hope, going forward, is that there will be a spillover effect, the idea that a few hit films lift the overall market.  That means more people in theaters seeing trailers and posters for other movies.  “There could be an awakening as people realize that there all these great films out there,” said Frank Rodriguez, senior vice president of distribution at Fox Searchlight. “I think there could be a renaissance in these last few months.”  Brooklyn, Spotlight, Room and Suffragette all have plenty of time to keep building up an audience.

However, maybe this would be a good year for the Academy to step outside of its comfort zone.  Box office performance should theoretically have no impact upon awards consideration.  A bomb can still have plenty of artistic merit, but so can a huge hit.  Recognize the achievements of the criminally under-seen, sure, but why not also remember that the far more popular Straight Outta Compton, The Martian, Inside Out, Ex Machina and Mad Max: Fury Road are also really, really good?

What about you?  What’s the best movie you’ve seen this year?  And do you think a national malaise is to blame for why so many Oscar contenders have flopped?  Or is it more due to a consistent lack of quality? Or should we drop this and come back to it in a couple of months after we’ve seen the rest of the big Oscar contenders?

Source: Variety


  1. Fury Road and Inside Out were the best movies I saw this year. I still haven’t watched The Martian, although I was very enthused about it from reading the book. Ive heard great things about Ex Machina, as well.
    Or perhaps people are just bored with these same ol’ bland movies. Most of the titles listed as Oscar-worthy films, sound incredibly boring. I felt not one ounce of enthusiasm for any of them, and that is what gets my butt into a theater.

    1. I’ve sort of felt that – i.e., the lack of enthusiasm – about the big Oscar movies for the past couple of years. There’s usually been one or two which were the clear elite and a bunch of “Eh, they’re okay. I’ll probably never think about them again now that I’ve seen them.” Out of last year’s nominees, the one which has really stuck with me is Whiplash.

      So far in 2015, I’ve noticed near euphoria over Mad Max: Fury Road, Inside Out, Ex Machina, Sicario and The Martian (to the point that it can mess with your expectations). Outside of that, it’s been a lot of “Eh, the first hour of The Walk is not that great” or “Steve Jobs is good if you like Aaron Sorkin movies” and other such qualifiers. The THR reviewer I quoted in my article lamented that so many people are staying away from some good movies this year. Maybe the problem has been that there’s only been a bunch of fairly good movies, and not nearly enough great ones (to be fair, I’m still waiting for Trumbo, Sufragette, Room, Brooklyn, Spotlight to reach my town).

      1. Yeah, I used to watch the Oscars ritually, every year. Last year, not only did I not watch them, I didn’t even care that I didn’t watch. I probably won’t care this year either if the current selection of movies is anything to go by.

  2. Great analysis! I think this year has been mediocre as a whole–the quality is just severely lacking. I’ve really liked Sicario, Beasts of No Nation and Fury Road, but that’s about it :\

  3. Well, I can only speak for myself. And in order to do this, I have to explain my viewing habits.
    First of all, there are really, really few movies which I feel I HAVE to see in theatres. Actually, there used to be exactly one group of movies which fell into the category, and that was the annual Disney movie, born out of a tradition of going every year around Christmas to see it with my family (naturally Disney had to go and ruin it by putting their movies in the summer or late February or not showing a new one at all). Not even Pixar get this distinction (I recently did watch Inside Out, but I am not convinced of The good Dinosaur…perhaps if the reviews are good).
    Recently the Marvel movies have become the second group of the “must see if possible” ones.
    Otherwise it is more a matter of what happens to be on screen on the day I happen to have time to meet with my friends to watch something. Or sometimes one of my friends wants to watch something and asks if we should go together. More often than not, though, none of us watches the movie in question in theatre, instead we meet and watch one of two movie on a beamer.
    But how do we pick movies when we actually go to the theatres? Well, partly it is brand recognition (which Oscar bait movies usually don’t have). For me it is often good reviews (which they sometimes get). But it is also an interest in the topic which is addressed. And I admit, just reading what those movies are supposedly about makes me not want to watch them. And it is the same reason why I don’t go and watch the next horror movie or the next action blockbuster or the next romcom. They sound generic. Generic Oscar bait movies, but still generic. Do I really need to see another movie about a gangster? The Godfather spawned a lot of those. Do I really need to see another Biopic? Those are full of lies anyway.

    I might get around and watch The Martian, considering the glowing reviews it gets, but it is unlikely that I will go for anything else.

    Though I do can confirm that I am not really in the mood to watch the problems of the world on screen. At least not on the big screen. That’s something I like to do from time to time at home when I can turn off the TV should the movie turn out to be too depressing or boring. But in theatres, I want to have fun. That’s the whole point of going to the theatres after all, to do something which makes me feel better between work days. If I want to see something depressing, I volunteer for a non-profit organization.

  4. I agree that Mad Max: Fury Road was amazing, it completely ruined me for all other movies. Another movie I adored for how purely /enjoyable/ it was is The Man From U.N.C.L.E. I think maybe that is a factor that might be increasing in importance when it comes to deciding which movie you’re willing to lay down some money for: is it enjoyable? The Martian and Inside Out certainly fit that bill as well.

  5. Well said. When I think of the movies I enjoyed the most, they’re often the fun predictable ones. Mad Max: Fury Road was sort of a glorious aberration. But The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was probably my other favorite from this year. It’s mostly fluff, but gosh darn it, it was so much fun.

  6. I thought I read somewhere that the Academy doesn’t give awards to movies that outright flop. If that’s true, it’s unfortunate to all these Oscar-worthy movies that will get shut out of the race.

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