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Can You Guess This Year's Most Profitable Oscar Movies?

By Tim Beyers – Feb 21, 2015 at 8:48AM

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So-called "risky" independent films are anything but for the studios making them. The Oscar tailwind all but assures it.

The 87th annual Academy Awards kick off this Sunday evening in Los Angeles.Credit: The Academy via Facebook.

Hollywood royalty gathers again on Sunday night to celebrate the best the movie industry had to offer in 2014. Some call it a vanity exercise. Not me. I follow the Oscars because, as an investor, I know that winning films tend to earn more and studios that do deals with winning filmmakers tend to produce more profits.

Oscar's golden touch
But don't take my word for it. Ask Rupert Murdoch why he isn't pressing filmmaker James Cameron to finish writing the sequels to 2009's Avatar. Hollywood's all-time highest grossing film ($2.79 billion worldwide) also won Oscars for Art Direction, Cinematography, and Visual Effects.

Of course, Oscar night isn't just about business for me. A few years ago I started putting on a small party for my wife, laying out snacks, drinks, and brackets as we prep for the big event. She enjoys the fashion as I check in on what's working in a business I've followed for decades (first as a fan, then as a business analyst).

Part of my annual "pregame" ritual, if you will, is to estimate the box office profitability of the year's Best Picture contenders. Here's what I learned about the current crop of nominees:

NomineeStudio DistributorWorldwide GrossEstimated Box Office ProfitMargin %
American Sniper Warner Bros. $393,078,136 $101,539,068 25.83%
Birdman Fox Searchlight $72,230,755 $9,115,378 12.62%
Boyhood IFC Films $44,364,016 $16,182,008 36.48%
Selma Paramount Pictures $48,514,386 ($15,742,807) (32.45%)
The Grand Budapest Hotel Fox Searchlight $174,600,318 $42,300,159 24.23%
The Imitation Game The Weinstein Co. $157,231,507 $45,615,754 29.01%
The Theory of Everything Focus Features $98,439,004 $21,219,502 21.56%
Whiplash Sony Classics $11,426,092 $863,046 7.55%
TOTALS N/A $999,884,214 $221,092,107 22.11%

Sources: Box Office Mojo, author estimates.

Yet the Oscar narrative doesn't end on Sunday night. Thanks to the generous team at Box Office Mojo I was able to analyze the financial impact on Best Picture nominees from 2011, 2012, and 2013.

As you can see below, movies that get the nomination for Best Picture reap the rewards at the box office:

Year201120122013
Pre-nomination gross $518,667,067 $620,403,134 $645,162,653
Final gross $628,287,077 $1,002,184,615 $813,115,481
Oscar impact % 21.13% 61.54% 26.03%

Sources: Box Office Mojo and author estimates.

To be fair, it's impossible to know how much of the added gross is due to the Best Picture imprimatur. Timing can be as much a factor as anything. For example, a late December release is always going to have a big "post-nomination" run because the bulk of its theatrical run comes after nominations are handed out. That said, theaters around the country set aside special screenings for nominees. It's also not uncommon for low-budget limited releases to get additional distribution after nomination. Among this year's crop, Whiplash found its way into 148 more theaters after getting the nod, Box Office Mojo reports.

Give these tables a closer look and you'll notice three things:

  1. More nominations don't necessarily lead to higher profits. For example, while Birdman's nine nominations speak to the film's supposed quality, its 12.6% estimated gross margin is less than half that of American Sniper, which has earned six nods while putting up huge numbers for Time Warner (TWX).
  2. One studio has more to gain than others on Sunday night. I'm talking specifically about 21st Century Fox (FOXA). The studio's Fox Searchlight subsidiary for funding independent projects has two films up for Best Picture: Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Both are profitable by my estimates, but with low budgets an Oscar win could add a meaningful chunk of cash to the studio's coffers.
  3. Smaller budgets tend to be better for studios. Of all the findings in my study, the most startling might be the amount production studios spend on Oscar-worthy projects. In 2014, the average Best Picture nominee cost just $20 million to produce and another $14.5 million to market and distribute. Seven of the eight are profitable as of this writing. As an investor, it makes me wonder if rising tentpole budgets are a serious risk for Disney (DIS -2.60%), Warner, Sony (SONY -1.37%), and the rest.

Why every investor should be tuning in
Watching the Oscars isn't likely to make you millions. Heck, I can't even guarantee you'll be entertained. But if history proves anything it's that the Oscar effect is real and the studios backing the winners tend to enjoy a windfall. In the business of investing, that's as close to a crystal ball as you're going to get.

Tim Beyers is a certified cinephile and genre entertainment junkie. He's also a member of the Motley Fool Rule Breakers stock-picking team and the Motley Fool Supernova Odyssey I mission and owned shares of Disney and Time Warner at the time of publication. Check out Tim's web home and portfolio holdings or connect with him on Google+Tumblr, or Twitter, where he goes by @milehighfool.

The Motley Fool recommends Facebook and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Facebook and Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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