‘Birdman’s’ best picture win at Oscars may give film a box-office boost

“Birdman” may have scored the top awards at the Oscars, but it has hardly soared at the box office.

With $37.7 million in domestic ticket sales since its release in October, “Birdman” is one of the lowest grossing best picture winners ever, underscoring the unusually wide gap this year between Oscar nominated films and box-office results.

Now, Fox Searchlight, the specialty film distribution company that released “Birdman,” is hoping to take advantage of surging interest in the film. The company, a division of 20th Century Fox, is releasing the movie into hundreds of additional theaters.

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The movie should also get a key boost from video-on-demand sales, which have become an increasingly important driver of studio profits.

“It’s really a global impact,” said Fox Searchlight co-President Steve Gilula. “Having actually won the best picture prize, it enhances everything.”

A so-called Oscar bump would be a much-desired outcome for this year’s crop of best picture nominees. Only “American Sniper” cracked the $100-million mark.

In total, the eight nominees grossed about $620 million as of Sunday, more than half that sum from “American Sniper,” the Warner Bros. Iraq War drama starring Bradley Cooper as an expert sharpshooter. The Weinstein Co.'s Alan Turing biopic “The Imitation Game” came in second at the box office among those nominees with about $84 million, while the three-category winner “Whiplash” grossed the least, taking in just $11.3 million.

This year’s best picture nominees did not include hits such as “Interstellar” and “Gone Girl.”

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That stands in contrast to previous years when the Academy has nominated films that scored big with critics and at the box office. Last year’s field included several major hits such as “Gravity,” “American Hustle” and “Captain Phillips.”

There was never much chance that “Birdman” — with its magical realism, dark humor and innovative cinematography — would become a mainstream hit. Michael Keaton plays a washed-up former superhero actor who seeks artistic redemption on Broadway. “Birdman” scored top honors for best picture, best director, cinematography and original screenplay.

But all the Oscar publicity will give it a significant lift in the marketplace.

“‘Birdman’ is the kind of movie that benefits most from this kind of exposure,” said Rentrak analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “It’s esoteric to the general public, but this gives the seal of approval that the general public understands.”

Nominations, which were announced in January, typically provide a bigger boost at the box office than Oscar wins themselves. That’s because by the time the Oscar ceremony comes around, most of the movies have run their course.

Still, Fox Searchlight is looking to the multiplex for more cash from “Birdman,” which was produced and co-financed by New Regency.

This week, “Birdman” will more than double its screen count to about 1,000 screens in the U.S. and Canada. Analysts said the film could raise its box-office total to $40 million to $45 million.

Likewise, Sony Pictures Classics plans to expand the release of its film “Whiplash,” which won three Oscars.

That tactic paid off for Searchlight’s “12 Years a Slave,” which won best picture last year. It more than doubled its screens the weekend after its Oscar triumph and raked in $2.1 million in additional ticket sales, twice the take of the previous weekend.

The company is also expecting a bump when “Birdman” opens in more countries outside the U.S. including France and South Korea. The film has already made $38.8 million in international ticket sales.

But the biggest opportunity may be in home video.

“Birdman” became available for digital purchase Feb. 3, in the run-up to the Oscars. It was released Feb. 17 on DVD/Blu-ray. That timing is not uncommon among distributors who are veterans of the awards races. Focus Features’ Stephen Hawking biopic “The Theory of Everything” also hit retail shelves last week.

Home video is an increasingly important, high margin business for the studios, though physical disc sales and rentals have collapsed in recent years.

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“The Hurt Locker” was a notable beneficiary of the DVD market. By the time it was nominated for best picture in 2010, it had been out of theaters for months. It was re-released theatrically amid the Oscar buzz, but still ended up with only $16.4 million. However, the Oscars put its home video sales into overdrive and DVD sales that week nearly tripled from the previous week, according to the Numbers, a box-office website.

Fox Searchlight’s other best picture nominee this year, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” has already seen a home entertainment sales surge across all platforms because of the Oscar race, Gilula said. It became available for purchase last summer.

There are also signs that “Birdman,” which cost just $18 million to make, is on an upswing. The film ranked No. 1 in iTunes sales among all movies Monday. According to a Google Play spokesperson, “Birdman” jumped from No. 4 to No. 2 in sales on the e-commerce outlet the day after winning best picture.

“VOD is becoming this huge force, but it’s very focused on a small number of titles in any given week,” said Numbers publisher Bruce Nash. “A film like this that everyone can get on VOD can get a huge spike in viewership.”

The movies’ lives don’t end with digital, DVD and Blu-ray sales. Fox Searchlight parent 20th Century Fox has an output deal with HBO, which means the pay-TV service gets a steady stream of the company’s theatrical movies a set number of weeks after their home entertainment releases.

HBO, owned by Time Warner Inc., currently is showing “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” a fact it advertised on social media after the movie scored four Oscars.

HBO pays Fox more than $200 million a year as part of a deal that runs through 2022. “Birdman” is also coming to HBO, though it is not clear when.

“This is definitely a movie that has some gas left in the tank on the big screen and the small screen,” Dergarabedian said.