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Despite its dark themes (slavery and the Civil War are hardly feel-good topics), Lincoln, like other Oscar nominees, has done very well at the box office. Disney has spent about $10 million campaigning for the best-picture prize, hoping for a payoff down the line. (DreamWorks)

Despite Dark Themes, A Big Oscar Bounce

Feb 22, 2013 (All Things Considered)

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How much is a best-picture Oscar worth? Not the statuette — winners are required to sell that back to the Academy for a buck if they want to get rid of it. No, what's the Oscar worth at the box office?

It's tricky to estimate, obviously, what with some pictures already on DVD when the contenders are nominated, and others just starting their theatrical runs. Still, this is a year where nominations appear to have made a difference, with a surprising number of popular nominees. Surprising because most of the best-picture selections were initially considered too dark to make much money.

The pretty digital-tiger movie, for instance, is downright Darwinian; the comedy is about mental illness; the musical is actually called The Miserable Ones; the indie flick is about death and hurricanes, and the foreign film just about death.

And then there are the dramas, about terrorism, slavery, terrorism and slavery. Dark, dark, dark. And everybody knows dark doesn't sell.

Except that a record seven of the nine best-picture nominees have already passed the $100 million mark. And a bit more than a third of that cash has come in since the Oscar nominations — weeks and even months after some of the films opened.

That doesn't happen with most pictures, or even with most nominees. So the Oscar bounce appears to be bigger than usual this year — though it's been purchased, let's note, at considerable expense. The Los Angeles Times estimates that Disney, which is hoping for its first best-picture win with Lincoln, has spent about $10 million campaigning for the award, presumably looking forward to a payoff not just at the box office but also in DVDs, streaming and other revenues later.

Oscar-winning director William Friedkin once called the Oscars "the greatest promotion scheme that any industry ever designed for itself," and the numbers suggest he wasn't overstating. By the time this year's statuettes are handed out, the nine best-picture nominees will together have sold more than a quarter of a billion tickets — meaning that a lot more people than usual will know enough to enter their office Oscar pools. Small wonder Sunday's telecast is commanding record rates for ad time.

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