With the lack of big studio titles at this year’s Oscars, the big question begged is whether Oscar viewership and the overall box-office marketplace is going to take a hit.

hurt locker picTypically the old rule of thumb was that big blockbuster movies, whenever they were nominated, such as James Cameron’s 1997 Titanic and 2009’s Avatar, are one of the catalysts for big Oscar ratings (that year’s host is another). The 1998 telecast, when Titanic won best pic, still ranks as the most-viewed Oscar telecast with 55.2M viewers since Nielsen began recording total viewership 40 years ago.

The year Avatar faced off against The Hurt Locker in best pic – viewership was up 15% over the 2009 ceremony, when indie pic Slumdog Millionaire was the best pic darling. 2010 was also the first year the Academy expanded the Best Picture slots to 10.

clint eastwoodBut this year, Warner Bros. American Sniper (current B.O. $90.2M) and Paramount’s Selma ($26M) are the only studios films in Oscar’s best pic group. That list (only eight this year) includes arthouse notables The Grand Budapest Hotel ($59.1M), The Imitation Game ($50.8M),  Birdman ($28.3M), The Theory of Everything ($27.3M), Boyhood ($24.6M) and Whiplash ($6.6M).

So, will anyone watch the show? The charms of host Neil Patrick Harris and the surplus of arthouse titles aside, viewership shouldn’t tank and everyone can thank Clint Eastwood and American Sniper for that.

million dollar babyWhen Eastwood has a horse in the race in  1994 –when Unforgiven landed him best pic, director and actor wins – viewership was up 3% with 45.7M total viewers.

Eastwood won best pic and director again in 2005 with Million Dollar Baby and Oscar viewership was at 42.1M. The next year, with no Eastwood project, viewership dropped 8 percent when indie two-punch Crash and Brokeback Mountain were the Oscar faves.

American Sniper, which is on course to hit $108M by Monday– a record for this time of year – really hit the hearts of not just a mass-moviegoing public, but those who don’t attend as well. As the film continues to hold over the next three weeks, there’s confidence that the film’s fans will tune in. Not to mention, viewership has been on an uptick over the last two years with 2013 hitting 40.3M and 2014 a 10-year record of 43M.

Now at the boxoffice this weekend, how did this year’s best pics translate? While Oscar noms can generate anywhere from a 35-50% spike for a film’s cume between the weekend prior to noms and Oscar night, this year, the average looks to be a stellar 96%.  Pushing that average higher are the potential increases expected for American Sniper and Selma in the coming weeks, not to mention, when a small film such as Whiplash, jumps from single to double digits in its total, it posts a more than decent percent increase. Some pundits have complained that this year’s crops of noms haven’t done so well at the B.O. vs. last year.  However, there was more studio skin in the game last year with four best pics charting over $100M — Gravity, American Hustle, Captain Phillips and Wolf of Wall Street. The rest of the noms, all arthouse, finaled bet $17.6M-$56.7M.

Oscar noms or not, it’s evident that American Sniper was always bound to play broad. Even before noms came out, the industry was projecting a record bow for Eastwood and January.  The film is piquing at the right time, right before Oscar ballots are being sent out on Feb. 6. It really faces no major competition at the B.O., until Warner Bros. trots out the Channing Tatum sci-fi film Jupiter Ascending, so the sky’s the limit for the film.

UnbrokenThe tragedy here at the box office this weekend is Universal’s WWII biopic about Louis Zamperini, Unbroken. And by tragedy, we mean — imagine how far it could have gone at the B.O. with key Oscar noms (not that the film is a dud at the B.O., hardly so. The $65M budget pic counts a global take of $130M).  Like American Sniper, Unbroken truly connected with moviegoers over the holiday season, and has a nice cume right now of $108.6M cume.  While the studio campaigned for the movie and connected with Faith-based ticket buyers, the question remains whether the Chicken Pox ultimately did this film in at the Oscar noms, after it was shut out of the above-the-line Oscar categories (the film received cinematography, sound editing and sound mixing nods). After coming down with the virus, director Angelina Jolie — the face for this epic despite being completely behind the scenes — missed the premiere, and potential TV appearances and any award campaign events planned around the film. In its fourth frame, Unbroken fell from fourth place to ninth place this weekend, registering a 48% decline and a weekend of $4.26M. The film lost close to 700 theaters from last weekend.

SelmaWhile it would be proper for Paramount’s Selma to dominate MLK weekend, the studio saw this American Sniper and The Wedding Ringer (another female-driven African American title like the Ava DuVernay directed biopic) coming and avoided it.  They fell 26% this weekend with $8.3M after their wide bow last weekend of $11.3M. That’s not bad at all, especially given the competition this weekend. In fact, given the film’s cross-marketing with African American businesses and churches, MLK is clearly the driver of the business. B.O. pundits believe that when all is said and done, the best picture contender looks to emulate a final B.O. to last year’s best pic winner 12 Years a Slave ($56.7M) with a final cume between $50-$60M.  That cume reps a two-three fold surge (from its cume last weekend) for Selma thanks in part to the Oscars; amazing and the type of uptick any distributor would relish.

Oscar-nominated holdovers – including Searchlight’s Birdman, Focus’ The Theory Of Everything, SPC’s Foxcatcher, Whiplash (and only slightly, Leviathan), IFC Films’ Boyhood and Two Days, One Night and TWC’s The Imitation Game. All those films went wider this weekend, adding theaters and box-office dollars as they rode this week’s awards attention as distributors vied to capitalize on the kudo recognition.

GRAND BUDAPEST 2However, on The Grand Budapest Hotel and Boyhood which played out well this summer, there is a consensus among distribs that at this point their returns are gravy, given how Wes Anderson’s Hotel is on VOD, DVD and HBO as well as Boyhood. Nonetheless, theaters do like grabbing cash from best pic noms.  Chains like AMC and Arclight phoned up Fox at the last minute Thursday to put Hotel back in 35 theaters where it’s looking to make an extra $40K this weekend. Boyhood,  expanded from 20 to 136 hubs, up over 1,000% with a $243K FSS and a running cume over $24.6M. The film is leading contender to take best pic when Oscars announced, but look no further than 2009’s The Hurt Locker. Like Boyhood, that film was already out on DVD with a limited run in theaters. Post Oscars, the domestic B.O. Hurt Locker went up only 12% from $14.7M to $16.4M. 

Keira Knightley Imitation GameWeinstein Co.’s The Imitation Game is one best pic contender that is kicking ass and taking names.  The film’s total haul of $50.8M is besting the trajectory of 2011 best pic winner The King’s Speech at the same point in time by 14%. Both titles bowed at the same time in November and hit their eighth week during the MLK frame.  Industry projections expect the Alan Turing biopic to hit the triple digits in its domestic B.O. as TWC ups its theater count by an estimated 1,600 next Friday.  It grossed $7.192M, averaging $4,464. Last weekend, it grossed over $7.6M in 1,566 locations, averaging $4,868 — yeah, it’s eight Oscar noms are definitely working in the film’s favor. Should Imitation Game hit $100M by Oscar night, that’s closes to 150% surge thanks to its nom traction (from its total cume last weekend) — something to stand up and clap about.

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in BirdmanFox Searchlight’s Birdman, which is tied with Hotel at 9 Oscar noms, is still alive, despite hitting a high point of 862 venues in late November.  Searchlight upped its theater count to 471 from 228 last weekend based on its Oscar Red Bull, saw a weekend uptick of 165% with $1.56M and a running cume of $28.3M. It’s gonna go even wider next weekend with an additional 800-1,000 engagements and it’s eyeing a cume by Oscar night of $40M, repping a 52% uptick in its total B.O (from last weekend) based on Oscar gold. At Lincoln Square where Birdman was the No. 12 title at the multiplex almost in danger of being thrown out, it flew up to be the third-to-fourth highest title this weekend.

The Theory Of Everything RedmayneThe Theory Of Everything, which received noms for best picture and actor (both Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones), added 101 theaters in its 11th weekend, increasing its Friday-to-Sunday estimate by 43%. The feature is coming in with a $960K gross through today in 509 theaters for a $1,886 PTA. Last week, it grossed $675K for a $1,654 PTA. Its estimated cume through Monday is $27.5M.  Insiders project the film at $35M by Oscar night, up 35% (from last weekend’s total) thanks to noms.

Sony Classics added 120 locations over the weekend for Whiplash, whose J.K. Simmons role was the most consistent awards getter in phase 1 of the season. But the film about a jazz drummer and his abusive teacher had a much better showing on Oscar nominations morning, grabbing a Best Picture nod. Damien Chazelle‘s film added 120 theaters in its 15th weekend in release, grossing $411,556 ($2,178 PTA), a 63% increase over the previous weekend. It has cumed just under $6.64M through Sunday. It is set to go wide at 1,000 next weekend.  The question is how much it can bust past $10M by Oscar night. We’ll see.

Even though some films didn’t get a best pic nom, their key acting awards are certainly aud attractors. SPC’s Still Alice was the weekend’s only newcomer with an Academy Award nomination (for Julianne Moore’s celebrated portrayal of a woman facing early-onset Alzheimer’s), and it opened in a dozen locations with decent results at $212K FSS and a super PTA of $17,703. Cume to date is $282K.

SPC’s Foxcatcher received nods for Best Director and acting categories including Mark Ruffalo for supporting actor and Steve Carell for lead. Sony Classics added a sizable 522 theaters in the Bennett Miller-directed feature in its 10th weekend, grossing over $1.124M, a 53% jump from last weekend’s $530K-plus gross in 237 theaters. The title also passed the 8-figure threshold with a cume at just under $10.05M. Insiders think the film has played out and it will hit $15M by Oscar night, which would be a 72% surge in its total B.O. from its weekend cume prior to Oscar noms.

Searchlight’s Wild which received a best actress nom for producer/star Reese Witherspoon and best supporting actress nod for Laura Dern

Image (15) two_days_one_night_2__140415155334.png for post 714340IFC Films’ Cannes feature Two Days, One Night appeared to have been dissed by the Academy when it failed to make the Foreign-language short list December 19, but it surprised on Thursday when Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard nabbed a nomination in the lead actress category. The distributor added 9 runs in the Dardenne bros.-directed film grossing $116,610, up 187% from last weekend, for a PTA just north of $5K. Its cume through four weeks is $300K. Last weekend it grossed $71,400 for a $5,100 PTA.

Below is Brian Brooks’ arthouse rundown:

NEW

Appropriate Behavior (Gravitas Ventures) NEW [11 Theaters] Weekend $18,525, Average $1,684
I (Aascar Film) NEW [222 Theaters] Weekend $780,953 (3-day), $870,953 (4-day), Average $3,518 (3-day), $3,923 (4-day)
Spare Parts (Lionsgate/Pantelion) NEW [440 Theaters] Weekend $1.5M (3-day), $1.915M (4-day), Average $3,409 (3-day), $4,352 (4-day)
Still Alice (Sony Pictures Classics) NEW [12 Theaters] Weekend $212,432, Average $17,703, Cume $282,332

HOLDOVERS / THIRD+ WEEKENDS
A Most Violent Year (A24) Week 3 [39 Theaters] Weekend $313,404 (3-day), 403,884 (4-day), Average $8,036 (3-day), $10,356 (4-day), Cume $894,058
American Sniper (Warner Bros.) Week 4 [3,555 Theaters] Weekend $90.205M (3-day), $105.2M (4-day), Average $25,374 (3-day), $29,592 (4-day), Cume $108.63M (4-day)
The Interview (Sony Pictures) Week 4 [163 Theaters] Weekend $95K, Average $583, Cume $6,013,034
Leviathan (Sony Pictures Classics) Week 4 [6 Theaters] Weekend $54,628, Average $9,105, Cume $194,989
Selma (Paramount) Week 4 [2,235 Theaters] Weekend $8.3M (3-day), $10.3M (4-day), Average $3,713 (3-day), $4,608 (4-day), Cume $27,964,000 (4-day)
Two Days, One Night (IFC Films) Week 4 [23 Theaters] Weekend $116,610, Average $5,070, Cume $300,123
Mr. Turner (Sony Pictures Classics) Week 5 [37 Theaters] Weekend $200,793, Average $5,427, Cume $1,592,633
Inherent Vice (Warner Bros.) Week 6 [653 Theaters] Weekend $1.16M, Average $1,776, Cume $6,475,944
Wild (Fox Searchlight) Week 7 [764 Theaters] Weekend $1.46M, Average $1,911, Cume $33,015,453
The Babadook (IFC Midnight) Week 8 [40 Theaters] Weekend $28,800, Average $720, Cume $864,892
The Imitation Game (The Weinstein Company) Week 8 [1,611 Theaters] Weekend $7,192,000, Average $4,464, Cume $50,798,308
Foxcatcher (Sony Pictures Classics) Week 10 [759 Theaters] Weekend $1,124,653, Average $1,482, Cume $10,049,913
The Homesman (Roadside Attractions/Saban Films) Week 10 [24 Theaters] Weekend $18,200, Average $758, Cume $2,376,581
The Theory Of Everything (Focus Features) Week 11 [509 Theaters] Weekend $960K (3-day), $1.185M (4-day), Average $1,886 (3-day), Cume $27.5M (4-day)
Citizenfour (RADiUS) Week 13 [41 Theaters] Weekend $50,380 (3-day), $65,649 (4-day), Average $1,229 (3-day), Cume $2,435,502
Birdman (Fox Searchlight) Week 14 [471 Theaters] Weekend $1.56M, Average $3,312, Cume $28,285,993
Whiplash (Sony Pictures Classics) Week 15 [189 Theaters] Weekend $411,556, Average $2,178, Cume $6,639,980
Boyhood (IFC Films) Week 28 [136 Theaters] Weekend $242,760, Average $1,785, Cume $24,600,207