By Hammad Zaidi | March 1, 2011

One of the most refreshing elements of an otherwise pensive and bland Academy Awards show was that so many relatively small budgeted, non-mega star driven films won the top five awards.

While the $15 million dollar budgeted The King’s Speech, took home “Best Picture,”  “Best Director” for Tom Hooper, “Best Actor” for Colin Firth and Best Original Screenplay for David Seidler, the $13 million dollar budgeted Black Swan earned a “Best Actress” Oscar for Natalie Portman.

Small films have won “Best Picture” Oscars before, like last year’s The Hurt Locker, (2009) Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and No Country For Old Men (2007), to name a few. But, those great pictures were often times pegged as “the little indies that could,” since they took down monstrous films like Avatar (2009), a $230 million dollar budget, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, (2008) a $160 million dollar budget.

However, this year most of the winning films were small productions. Thus, not only is David beating Goliath at the Oscars, but David is becoming Goliath. Including this year, smaller budgeted films have won the last four “Best Picture” Oscars, and five of the last six when you include Crash (2005).

With production budgets dwindling in Hollywood, especially for Oscar-worthy dramas, it’s important to notice emerging trends, so that we can best equip ourselves with the knowledge needed to thrive in the ever-changing world of filmmaking.

Thus, without further ado, here is a bit of insight into what winning an Oscar can trigger for smaller films.

This Year’s Indie Darlings:

“The King’s Speech” Won’t Be Stuttering Anytime Soon
This year’s “Best Picture” winner, The King’s Speech, is a $15,000,000 budgeted film that was financed from international pre-sales led Momentum Pictures in the UK and Filmnation, as well as a chunk of financing from UK Film Council. The film has already made over $237,000,000 worldwide thus far, and it also enjoyed a 41% increase in domestic box office ticket sales on the first weekend after its 12 Academy Award nominations. Now that it’s won four Oscars including “Best Picture,” The King’s Speech will rake in millions more dollars both domestically and internationally, do pretty well on V.O.D. and even enjoy healthy numbers in the dwindling DVD market.

This success seems like quite a feat, especially for a production that was completed entirely without a major studio’s involvement. In fact, the “indie journey,” for The King’s Speech, even included turning down an offer from Fox Searchlight in 2009, because Searchlight wanted worldwide rights to the film. Knowing that such a move would cut out which the international companies that supported and invested in the film from the beginning, The King’s Speech producers Iain Canning, Emile Sherman and Gareth Unwin chose to stick with the companies that got them initial financing and roll the picture out themselves. They went on to strike a deal with The Weinstein Company for the picture’s domestic distribution, and the rest is history.

“Black Swan” Is Already “In The Black”
Black Swan, a $13,000,000 budgeted thriller, has already made $103,599,000 million dollars at the domestic box office and another $122,200,000 worldwide, totaling $225,799,000. Due to the fact that Black Swan’s genre casts a wider net than The King’s Speech in terms of the age groups that will flock to see the film, I expect this picture to “topple the king” in all areas, including box office, DVD, and V.O.D.

Recent “Best Picture” Winners:

“The Hurt Locker” Blew Up After The Oscar, Then On DVD
This little war film, budgeted at somewhere between $11,000,000 and $15,000,000 depending on whom you believe, became the lowest grossing picture to ever win “Best Picture,” with a worldwide gross of only $19,000,000 at the time it won the “Best Picture” Oscar on March 7, 2010. However, The Hurt Locker earned an additional $30 million at the worldwide box office after winning, making its worldwide gross $49,230,726.

The picture also did amazing on DVD, selling 1,828,873 copies, which created sales of  $32,362,035 on DVD.  One of the main reasonsThe Hurt Locker did well on DVD is because almost nobody saw the film in theaters before it dominated at the Oscars.  Thus, Kathryn Bigelow’s gritty depiction of war was a truly discovered by mass audiences on DVD.

“Slumdog MillionaireHad All The Answers Worldwide
Slumdog Millionaire, director Danny Boyle’s “Best Picture” gem, had a no stars, a production budget of $14,000,000, and a fate that almost resulted in Warner Brothers dumping it on home video and never attempting to release it theatrically.

Thanks to Fox Searchlight taking the picture off Warner Brothers’ hands, Slumdog Millionaire went from being a home DVD release to bowing at The Telluride Film Festival on August 30, 2008. From Telluride, the picture went on the catch immense buzz during its September 7, 2008 screening at The Toronto International Film Festival. A few short months later, on November 12, 2008,  Slumdog Millionaire opened domestically on 10 screens, which due to overwhelming critical response and never-ending positive word-of-mouth, led to the film earning an incredible $365,257,315 at the worldwide box office, including $141,319,928 in the United States.  Furthermore, the picture cashed in with 824,000 DVD sales, totaling $33,033,913, when it released its DVD on March 31, 2009, three weeks after winning eight Oscars.

“No Country For Old Men Killed It On DVD
This 2007 “Best Picture” Oscar winner had a production budget of $25,000,000. No Country For Old Men, went on to earn $74,273,505 at the domestic box office and an additional $87,829,704 internationally, totaling  $162,103,209. However, the picture really flourished on DVD, earning $45,933,150. The DVD was released on March 11, 2008, just two weeks after the February 24, 2008 Academy Awards ceremony.

“Crash” Crashed The Party and started The Current Trend
On March 5, 2006, Crash, a $6,500,000 budgeted indie, took out the heavily favorite Brokeback Mountain, to win the “Best Picture” Oscar. What followed the next day was that Lionsgate sold 17,500 DVD copies of the newly anointed “Best Picture,” more than half of the 33,000 DVDs it had sold previously. Crash also went on to tally $98,307,109 at the worldwide box office, including $54, 557,348 domestically.

One trend that emerges from analyzing these five “Best Picture” Oscar winners, is that the money earned on DVD after the Oscar win is as important – and more important in some cases – than the actual theatrical performance of the picture.

It’s been long understood that Oscar-winning films get a boost at the box-office right after they win – sometimes as much as $100,000,000 more in earnings – but that only helps if the film is already at the box office, and has a distributor willing to pump millions of more dollars into advertising the crown jewel as an “Academy Award Winner.”

These days, distributors are spending less in keeping the Oscar winners iN theaters, and more on getting them onto DVD as soon as possible. This way distributors can capitalize on the short-lived, but powerful heat that winning an Oscar generates with consumers.

Call it a troubled economy, a temporary trend, or merely just the way audiences prefer to watch their entertainment, but it looks as if a theatrical release has gone from being “the end-all-be-all,” to becoming “step one,” of a multi-platform rollout that is timed to reach its consumers effectively.

Thank you for lending me your eyes, and I’ll see you next Tuesday!

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  1. Hammad Zaidi says:

    Amanda –

    Thanks for the heads up on “White Irish Drinkers.” I’ll have to check it out. By the way,

    Thank you for reading “Going Bionic.”

  2. Amanda says:

    I was so happy to see so many indie films win an Oscar. There were so many great films this year. One film I’m really excited about is White Irish Drinkers. It’s an indie film about a young man trying to make it through the hardships growing up in Brooklyn. I hear it’s a really great story. It’s going to be in the Craic Film Festival in March this year.

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