Box office and Oscar, from 'Deathly Hallows' to 'Tree of Life'

How did this year's nominees do at the domestic box office?

<p>&quot;The Help' set itself up as an awards player early on by becoming a box office success story.</p>

"The Help' set itself up as an awards player early on by becoming a box office success story.

Credit: Walt Disney Pictures

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It's Oscar Sunday and by tonight, it'll all be over but the cryin', as they say. But as we gear up for today's festivities, I thought I'd take a look at the box office of this year's Oscar nominees for the first time this season.

I was happy to quietly do away with our already thin box office coverage a few months back because it's just not an element of the business I can invest in too much. Often times, even more so than observing an Oscar race, it can be pretty disheartening.

Of course, the biggest box office champ of the year was "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2," which raked in over $380 million at the domestic box office this year. That was good enough to significantly top the previous top money-grabber of the franchise, 2001's "The Sorcerer's Stone," and it also marked the first time a Potter film topped a "Transformers" entry.

It's a good thing the film banked that much because I imagine that kind of dough came in handy when Warner Bros. was busy spending a fortune on an ill-fated Oscar campaign on behalf of the film for Best Picture. While part of me thinks, "Man, what a waste," I guess you kind of have to give it a shot, particularly with big fat passes coming in from the critical fraternity like that.

Speaking earlier of Michael Bay's giant robots, "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" came in second on the domestic till with just over $350 million in box office receipts. Like "Deathly Hallows: Part 2," the film scored three nominations in craft categories. Uniquely, Paramount went all out campaigning the film for those areas in phase two, with vibrant commercial spots and big ads in the trades. It was unprecedented, but it was smart, not because it will pay off with a win (though it could in one of the sound categories), but because it keeps certain people happy. Certain people whose movies make the kind of money that allows for the studio to take a bath on a film like "Hugo" that cost over $150 million and only brought back $60 million.

Those two films, along with the non-nominated "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," were the only billion-dollar grossers worldwide this year. Naturally.

Moving along, a box office story right before the season began, at the tale end of the summer, was Tate Taylor's "The Help." After opening in second place (right behind the second weekend of "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," which, by the way, should be noted along with its $176 million gross in this space), the film shot to the number one spot in its second week and stayed there for three straight weekends. It was a stroke of brilliance, finding that kind of a soft spot in the calendar (nothing of note opened against the film until it took the combined might of "Contagion," "Drive" and "The Lion King 3D" all opening on the same day to take it down a few notches). By then, though, the story was made.

That's partly why Viola Davis entered the season as the frontrunner in the Best Actress category. She maintained it throughout the season for various other reasons, but that cash flow injection at the start of things really helped pave the way for the film in general. It settled right around $169 million domestic, which is a considerable victory.

Also finishing up right around $169 million, in fact a little bit lower, was "Bridesmaids." The late spring/early summer entry didn't appear to be an awards possibility until Melissa McCarthy surprisingly won the Emmy in September. Then people started talking, particularly about her. Then they started talking about Best Original Screenplay. Then Best Picture. Then the film nailed down nominations from the PGA, WGA, etc. and a (good) campaign was building.

Ultimately, it was McCarthy and Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo's script that would represent the film at the Oscars, a considerable triumph for Universal, while the whole saga inspired a lot of champions demanding, as they did with "The Hangover" two years ago, that comedy get a fair shake in awards season.

Animated films are always noteworthy on a box office piece, and of this year's nominees, "Kung Fu Panda 2" was on top with $165 million domestic. "Puss in Boots" ($149 million), "Rio" ($143 million) and "Rango" ($123 million) were all around the same tier of the year's totals.

The only other $100 million grosser of this year's nominees (though just barely) was David Fincher's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," which was a late bloomer. Or at least, a slow grower. Early dismissals of its fiscal take by the media (including yours truly) ended up off the mark, but I nevertheless think most involved with this global phenom property expected a bigger burst at the box office than that.

"The Muppets" and "Real Steel" only have a single nomination apiece, but I should mention their $88 million and $85 million grosses nevertheless, while the next Best Picture nominee on the chart is Steven Spielberg's "War Horse," currently sitting at $79 million (certainly lower than many expected given how strongly it came oout of the holiday gate). That's just a breath ahead of "The Descendants"'s $78 million, "The Adventures of Tintin"'s $76 million and "Moneyball"'s $75 million.

And then, finally, we come to "Hugo," knocking on the door of a mere $70 million. Some wonder whether the film's abysmal showing might be reflected in a reticence to award it very many Oscars. I guess we'll know in a few hours.

The next film on the list was an undeniable box office story this year. With $55 million in the bank from domestic receipts, "Midnight in Paris" was smartly kept in theaters by Sony Pictures Classics throughout the summer and into the awards season long enough for it to become Woody Allen's highest grossing movie to date just as all the other awards contenders were coming out for their spotlight at this festival or that press screening.

I lost track of how "The Ides of March" was doing throughout the year, but it looks like it stalled right at $40 million, while "Drive" came to the end of its road at $35 million. Then we come to "The Artist."

The Weinstein Company played its pony in the old Miramax way yet again, the film's first significant expansion coming right after the Oscar nominations. "The King's Speech" had already been on over 1,000 screens for 10 days when the nominations announced last year, but just prior to that expansion, it was sitting on $35 million. Only 200 screens were added for "The Artist" after the Oscar nominations this year and it had nearly $19 million in the bank just before its first expansion to 1,000 screens two and a half weeks ago.

Since then, the film has dropped some screens here, added some screens there, and will likely go out onto even more this weekend with a Best Picture Oscar in tow. It will have about $32 million when that happens, whereas "The King's Speech" was already on well over 2,000 screens and in $100 million territory by the time the Oscars were held.

These are very different films, of course. So there are very different variations on a similar strategy going on here. I think the box office story on "The Artist" may have a few chapters yet to be written, and it'll be interesting to see how audiences discover it (and take to it) after this weekend.

Next there's Scott Rudin's other film, "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," which has already expanded to as many as 2,600 screens and retreated to about 500. It's looking like $33 million is the ceiling for that one as it's liming toward $31 million currently.

And finally, just to make an exception and step outside the top 100 domestic grossers of the year, the last Best Picture nominee of the lot, "The Tree of Life." $13 million isn't a bad get for a film like that and Fox Searchlight was certainly pleased with that. It was a good counter-programming play throughout the summer and here it is, in my opinion, the single best film nominated for an Oscar this year.

That ought to tell you plenty about box office's correlation to quality.

For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.

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Kristopher Tapley
Editor-at-Large
Kristopher Tapley has covered the film awards landscape for over a decade. He founded In Contention in 2005. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Times of London and Variety. He begs you not to take any of this too seriously.
2013-2014 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
UPDATED: MARCH 2, 2014