While box office hasn’t factored too significantly into the Oscars for years now, that hasn’t stopped some pundits from questioning the chances of otherwise acclaimed films like “First Man” and “Widows.” The films were projected to earn higher totals than they’ve achieved so far, with “First Man” earning $44 million and “Widows” earning $34 million to date. Both have traditionally crowd-pleasing elements to them, with “First Man” centering on an American icon, Neil Armstrong as played by bona fide star Ryan Gosling, and “Widows” being in the heist genre with an all-star cast led by Viola Davis. The box office receipts so far hardly suggest a bomb in either case, but how significantly should awards experts be factoring in such totals?
“First Man” was hit by right-wing controversy in the weeks before its release, with reports out of the Venice Film Festival where it premiered noting that the film did not feature the famous planting of the American flag on the moon. Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted that this was “total lunacy,” adding fuel to the fire. This no doubt affected box office from those on the right side of aisle who may have perceived the film to be some kind of un-American propaganda from the left. It also didn’t help “First Man” to be released in theaters a week after box office smashes “A Star Is Born” and “Venom,” which caused the film to debut at a distant no. 3 in its opening weekend. Its CinemaScore with average audiences was a good not great B+, which suggests word of mouth may not have been too strong.
Then there’s “Widows,” with its cast that included Davis, action hero Michelle Rodriguez, Tony winner Cynthia Erivo, rising star Elizabeth Debicki, and beloved actors like Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell and Liam Neeson. It also had the pedigree of being directed by a recent Best Picture-winning director Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”), who co-wrote the screenplay with red-hot author and screenwriter Gillian Flynn. The heist film debuted at no. 5 in its opening weekend and earned a solid B CinemaScore.
Both films were universally praised by critics but have surprisingly failed to make much of an impact with early awards. “First Man” only received two Golden Globe nominations: Claire Foy for Best Supporting Actress and Justin Hurwitz for Original Score, while “Widows” was completely shut out. It is difficult to tell exactly why this is, but in terms of the academy, the negative perception about their respective box office totals and the audience reactions could be a detriment. Plenty of films have been nominated for Best Picture in recent years without becoming huge breakout hits, like “Call Me by Your Name” and “Phantom Thread” last year or “Room” in 2015, but there aren’t many examples of films that did worse than expected but still made it into Best Picture regardless. “Steve Jobs” may be the best example in recent years of a film that had major Oscar heat before it opened but flopped at the box office; it went on to win only two Oscar nominations for acting.
It’s still too early to tell if the same fate will affect “First Man” and/or “Widows,” but being snubbed from groups like the AFI and the National Board of Review are a troubling sign. Of course, the new, growing membership of the academy could indicate that the old rules of box office and precursors helping dictate the Oscars don’t apply as much anymore.
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