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If Big Box Office Means Big Ratings, This Year's Oscars Are In Big Trouble

Empty frames that would normally hold movie posters hang on the front of an AMC theater shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic on Dec. 4, 2020, in Rosemont, Ill.
Empty frames that would normally hold movie posters hang on the front of an AMC theater shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic on Dec. 4, 2020, in Rosemont, Ill.

Oscar's box-office bounce this year is a resounding thud.

Most awards seasons find film fans seeking out Best Picture nominees in the run-up to the Academy Awards telecast, with the eventual winner reaping millions of additional dollars post-telecast.

Last year, the literary classic Little Women, the single-shot World War I epic 1917, and the World War II satire Jojo Rabbit all saw big bounces at the box office prior to the telecast. And Parasite, the first foreign language film to win Best Picture, expanded its theatrical run five-fold after the nominations.

Altogether, that year's Best Picture nominees earned more than $750 million at North American box offices, and another $1.3 billion overseas, much of it after the nominations were announced.

This year, with cinemas mostly closed, and audiences skittish about crowds, there's been hardly any business, let alone a bounce. Front-runner Nomadland has taken in a snappy $2.1 million in the U.S. The year's prestige "blockbuster," Promising Young Woman, has earned only three times that.

In fact, if you take all eight of the Best Picture nominees and combine their worldwide earnings, the total comes to barely $35 million. That would be an unimpressive figure for one nominee in a normal year.

The concern for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is that low box office numbers generally translate into low telecast ratings. Viewers of awards shows like to have a rooting interest in the outcome, but audiences haven't seen this year's nominees, and the AMPAS worries they simply won't tune in.

There are reasons for that concern: Oscar ratings have hit all-time lows in recent years. After hovering for a decade between 32 million and 44 million viewers, the last three years dipped below 30 million for the first time in the telecast's history, reaching a nadir last year as just 23.6 million viewers saw Parasite become the first film not in English to win Best Picture.

Viewership this year, will almost certainly be lower. By the time of its win, Parasite had already taken in $37 million in just the U.S. — more than the combined totals of all of this year's nominees worldwide.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.