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No matter how much film goers may complain about awards season fatigue, after a summer of comic book heroes and multiple sequels, the winter season is elevated by the smart, adult-minded films released in time for Oscar contention.

It used to be that the highest grossing films also tended to win awards, but now the Oscars have become a means for less mainstream films to make money and gain exposure to wider audiences. In other words, the Academy Awards used to confirm what audiences already knew. Now, they are an all-important marketing tool.

“Two Hollywoods”

Bill Wyman, Salon’s former arts editor, says this separation of high grossing films and awards contenders has resulted in “two Hollywoods.” On the one hand, there are the big budget franchise films that are rarely in contention on awards night, but which carry the industry in terms of revenue, and on the other hand, there are the Oscar-winning “films for adults.”

For the past few years, says Wyman, it’s these latter films that have hijacked the Oscars and which depend on those wins for box office boosts.

That boost hasn’t gone unnoticed by the industry. While Oscar campaigns are toned down from what they used to be, studios still spend from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars to promote their films for an Oscar nomination.

That’s because with the right marketing push, an Oscar nomination can increase revenue for the studios by keeping the movies in theatres longer and boosting not only box office earnings, but the film’s DVD sales, digital downloads and cable TV revenues down the line.

Thanks to its Oscar nominations, American Hustle has increased box office sales. Image via

Thanks to its Oscar nominations, American Hustle has increased box office sales. Image via

Oscar-nominated films are also generally released later in the year, so that they will likely still be playing in theatres during the typical “awards season” leading up to the ceremony. This year’s season was particularly crowded.

A prime example of a film riding the Oscar nomination wave was last year’s Best Picture nominee, Silver Linings Playbook, which grossed only $35.7 million domestically prior to the nominations, and ended up earning $132 million in North America alone – a 369 percent box office increase.

This year’s nine Best Picture nominees have seen box office bumps since the nominations were announced on January 16, with American Hustle seeing the biggest increase ($24.1 million), according to Box Office Mojo.

More explosions, less acclaim

While audiences are flocking to big budget blockbusters, film buffs are worried that artistically ambitious movies are being threatened in the process.

Jeffrey Wells, Hollywood Elsewhere blogger, put it to me this way in an email: “Awards season, or the celebration of any and all films that aspire to do more than resort to CG-driven comic-book or superhero plots, is the only thing keeping good movies alive.”

That may sound pessimistic, but it’s unbridled optimism compared to Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who warned film students at USC last summer of an impending “implosion” of the industry.

Citing the high cost of marketing movies and the need to make them for the general public, Lucas said, “eventually the Lincolns will go away and they’re going to be on television.”

Until that happens, awards season is one of the few times that films lacking mainstream appeal can earn recognition and revenue.

Hopefully the Oscar brand remains a status symbol that encourages studios to continue to foster talent in addition to churning out $200 million action movies, sequels and romantic comedies. But one thing is for certain – as long as the Oscar nod still means a boost in box office for the studios, it really is an honour just being nominated.