How Oscar Films Streaming and On Demand Protect Moviegoers' Investment

NEW YORK (MainStreet) – It's been a while since you've had to go to the movies to enjoy the Oscars.

Movie ticket sales in the U.S. have fallen steadily from 1.57 billion in 2002 to 1.27 billion last year, according to Box Office Mojo. To put that into perspective, the last time audiences bought that few tickets was in 1993, when the average ticket price of $4.14 was half of the $8.30 it is today and the top-grossing films — Jurassic Park with its $357 million U.S. take — still outgrossed any of its contemporaries from 2014.

The Academy Awards haven't been immune to that downturn. In 1993, when Schindler's List took home the award for Best Picture, the field of five nominees (which also featured The Fugitive, The Piano, Remains Of The Day and In The Name Of The Father) grossed an average $73.7 million per film. Going into Presidents Day weekend, this year's field of eight nominees averaged just $70.6 million. Even if the blockbuster American Sniper matches The Fugitive's adjusted-for-inflation pre-Oscars take of $294 million, this year's Best Picture nominees are making the same amount as their predecessors more than two decades ago by bringing fewer people in to see more movies. In fact, with inflation included, this year's $70.6 million average is actually well behind the 1993 Best Picture nominees, whose box office take adjusts to $120.7 million.

This isn't a low point for the Best Picture category — as the five films in the running for Best Picture of 2005 (Crash, Brokeback Mountain, Munich, Capote and Good Night and Good Luck) averaged just $49.1 million per film (or $59.5 million in today's dollars). But it is just a friendly reminder that movie audiences of every type have far more options for viewing those movies than in years past.

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As the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences prepares to hand out its hardware this weekend, it does so with the knowledge that an increasing number of people are seeing its nominees in their living rooms or on their devices rather than in theaters. While we're still giving an Oscars bump to theater chains including Regal (REG) , AMC (AMC) , Carmike (CKEC) and Cinemark (CNK) around this time of year, were also turning more frequently to Netflix (NFLX) , Amazon (AMZN) , Google (GOOG) Play, Apple's (AAPL) iTunes, Verizon (VZ) and Vimeo to binge watch a year's worth of films.

John Farr, a movie reviewer for The Huffington Post and founder of Best Movies By Farr — a site that reviews classic, independent and foreign films while aggregating streaming options for each film reviewed — has a somewhat conflicted relationship with streaming and video-on-demand options for film. While he has worked to save movie theaters in Stamford, Conn., and Bedford, N.Y., he also realizes streams like those he links to through his site are meeting a need for today's moviegoer.

“I love watching movies in theaters and always will, but there's something inevitable about the fact that, if we allow people to watch a movie at home and that person is allowed to pay for it at whatever amount, we're not going to be able to say 'Sorry, you have to wait six months or so for this to leave theaters,'” he says. “What consumers want is to consume what they want, when they want and how they want it, and, in many ways, the traditional model of how first-run movies are seen is going the way of the dodo.”

Last year, every nominee for Best Documentary was available either through streaming or on-demand services. This year, Virunga (Netflix) and Last Days In Vietnam (Amazon), Finding Vivian Maier (Amazon) are all available through streaming services, while the entire slate of short-form documentaries (as well as animated and live-action shorts) are available through Vimeo OnDemand, iTunes, Amazon and various on-demand services.

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“Particularly with the younger generation, my kids' age, we're living in a short-format generation,” Farr says. “It's the YouTube generation and ... there's a whole sort of democratization of distribution through online channels for these films where, at one time, you didn't even know where to go to see them.”

Even Best Picture nominees aren't so hard to find beyond theaters at this point. Grand Budapest Hotel, Boyhood, Birdman and The Theory of Everything (as of this week) are widely available through digital download, digital rental and pay-per-view services. Nightcrawler (Best Original Screenplay), Ida (Best Foreign Language Film/Best Cinematography), Begin Again (Best Original Song), The Judge (Best Supporting Actor, for Robert Duvall), Gone Girl (Best Actress for Rosamund Pike), Big Hero 6 (Best Animated Feature), just about every blockbuster up for the Best Visual Effects nomination — all are available either through streaming or video-on-demand services.

Farr doesn't blame moviegoers for waiting until these films hit streaming or video-on-demand channels before seeing them. Considering the substantial time and money involved in seeing a film during its initial release, waiting until Oscar nominations are announced before seeing a film is simply a means of hedging bets and protecting one's investment.

“The truth is that the vast majority of movies are not great,” Farr says. “It's not because the people who make them are stupid, it's because it's extremely hard to actually make a great film.”

— By Jason Notte for MainStreet 

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte.

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