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Oscar Hopefuls Struggle at #BoxOffice

Here's the reason why so many hopefuls have fallen on hard times.

Story by Matt Cummings

In a year that will go down as the most profitable in box office history, Hollywood is shaking its head over a new problem: the disastrous run of Oscar hopefuls. What seemed like a small issue back in September has become a full-fledged marketing nightmare. From Our Brand is Crisis to Suffragette, audiences have stayed away in massive numbers, even in the face of critical praise.

Take Steve Jobs for example. The biopic starring Michael Fassbender has made only $16.7m in 5 weeks, tumbling 65% in its second weekend of wide release. But don't tell critics that: it still enjoys an 85% Rotten Tomatoes rating, making it one of the highest-rated movies of the year. And yet audiences didn't buy it. And then there's The Walk, Burnt, Everest, 99 Homes, Truth, Room, and several others that have walked a very short gang plank into cultural obscurity.

So, why the sad faces? Sites like Variety believe the problem is psychological, claiming that Americans are depressed and don't want to be reminded of it as they escape to darkened theaters. Others like The NY Times' Michael Cieply claim that audiences are engaging in a feast/famine approach, awarding just a few films (SPECTRE, Bridge of Spies, The Martian) while denying mid-range hits a chance to develop at all.

But there is another reason: most of these films just aren't very good. Nearly all rank fair to poor with SJF, which we've criticized for either being too long, poorly conceived/executed, or just plain boring. Add to this the massive amount of television now available (most of it quite good), and potential moviegoers would rather wait to see a mid-range drama when it arrives on cable rather than take a chance with loud crowds, flashing cell phone screens, and over-priced concessions.

Some films have demanded attention with their big-screen/big-brains approaches. Take the The Martian, perhaps the strongest contender so far for Best Picture. Its story of hope and perseverance has led to a total of $200m domestic/$450m worldwide, yet that doesn't even rank it in the top 5 for the year. Martian's approach might be an anomaly. SJF favorites Sicario and Black Mass have made almost as much money as SPECTRE combined, which itself could suffer a hard second-week fall. One ray of light: SPECTRE's opening week made money than the previous week's top 5 combined.

And the problems might just be starting. Given the massive demand for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, will there even be enough theaters available to accommodate the nice but boring Brooklyn and other arthouse pictures like The Danish Girl or Carol? If theater owners have the chance to pack seats and sell out of popcorn, will these Oscar hopefuls even have a chance in the open market? November/December has traditionally been a period when smaller films arrive in the hopes of courting Oscar glory. Mockingjay, Part 2 and The Force Awakens stand as massive impediments to that goal.

This sort of programming stupidity is only one of Hollywood's new problems, as comic book movies have already affected the early 2016 schedule. In fact, February's Oscar show could sport one of the lowest combined box office totals for Best Picture since records were kept. That could overshadow a ceremony which has come under criticism for being self-congratulatory and detached from the mainstream view.

Much like programmed fashion trends, Hollywood expects audiences to jump aboard their films with their dollars and hearts. This year has proved that the trend might be changing. How those in power might react to such scorn could be more interesting than the films themselves.

Discuss this story with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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