And the Oscar goes to...who cares?
While Hollywood celebrates Oscar Sunday, studios need to remember that casting an award winner in a future film is not a guarantee of financial success.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- There is a good chance that Jennifer Hudson is going to win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress this Sunday for her performance in "Dreamgirls."
But if she does win, should Hollywood studios rush out to try and cast her in big budget films? Not so fast. Sure, an Oscar win for Hudson could catapult her onto the A-list of most desired actresses.
Yet, having an Academy Award winner in a movie is not necessarily a plus. In fact, according to research from S. Abraham Ravid, a professor of finance and economics at Rutgers University who has studied the economics of the movie business, Oscar winners don't necessarily lead to higher profitability for a movie.
In a 1999 study, Ravid wrote that having a "star," which he defined as a movie having at least one Academy Award winning cast member, in a movie did typically lead to higher box office revenues than movies without Oscar winners but that the difference was marginal. In addition, movies with people who have gold statues on their mantle didn't tend to be more profitable than films without the benefit of an award winner.
It makes sense. The Oscars, which in theory are more about art than commerce, often reward people who aren't huge celebrities.
Just think of some of the Oscar winners for any of the four major acting awards from the past fifteen years or so who haven't exactly become bankable stars on the silver screen. Mira Sorvino, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Geoffrey Rush, Helen Hunt, Roberto Benigni, Adrien Brody. And these are just a few. Paging Marisa Tomei.
Last year's "Hollywoodland," which starred Brody and former Oscar nominees Diane Lane and Bob Hoskins, as well as Oscar winner Ben Affleck -- who won a Best Screenplay Academy Award for co-writing "Good Will Hunting" with Matt Damon -- grossed an anemic $14.4 million at the box office.
Even two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank has not turned out to be a big box-office draw. Last year's "Black Dahlia," which she starred in, grossed just $22.5 million in the U.S. This year's "Freedom Writers" has pulled in $36.3 million. While that's decent for an early January release, nobody is going to confuse Swank's star power with say, Drew Barrymore or Cameron Diaz.
What's more, having an Oscar winner in a movie did not lead to a significant difference in home video sales for that film, according to Ravid's study. That's significant, since video and DVD sales have increasingly become more important in determining how successful a movie is for a studio.
Ravid said in an interview Wednesday that a newer study, which has yet to be published, has showed similar results for DVD and video sales of movies with Academy Award winners.
So hiring an award winner may not be the most financially prudent move for a studio, Ravid argues, especially since an actor or actress typically can command higher salaries once they've won an Oscar.
"As soon as somebody wins an award, their market price goes up and that accounts for why there may not be a big difference in the rate of return of movies with Oscar winners. Revenues don't increase enough to offset increasing costs," Ravid said.
Sure, there are exceptions to the rule. Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry are all recent Oscar winners who have remained big stars. But you can argue that winning an award did not make them more marketable. Seriously, would fewer people have gone to see "Die Another Day" and "X-Men: The Last Stand" if Berry hadn't won Best Actress in 2002?
To that end, award victories and nominations don't seem to matter as much to younger moviegoers, who have become increasingly important targets for Hollywood. Just look, for example, at the marketing campaign for the recent Eddie Murphy comedy "Norbit."
Even though Murphy is considered the favorite to win a Best Supporting Actor award for his performance in "Dreamgirls," you don't see the phrase "Academy Award nominee" or "Golden Globe Winner" mentioned in any of the ads for "Norbit."
"It all comes down to demographics. When you are promoting a youth comedy like 'Norbit' they don't care about critical reviews or Oscars. Buzz about nominations matter more for older people," said Tim Nett, chief executive officer of Trailer Park, an entertainment marketing company.
Of course, this is not to say that winning an Oscar has no box office impact.
Ravid points out that films which get panned by critics tend to do better if an Oscar winner is in them than poorly-reviewed movies without award winners.
"With films that have bad reviews, you do get a revenue bump if actors and actresses had an Academy Award. So studios might use award-winning actors as an insurance policy if the movie flops with critics," he said.
And big studios like Time Warner's (Charts) Warner Bros., News Corp (Charts).-owned Fox, Viacom's (Charts) Paramount, Walt Disney's (Charts) Buena Vista and Miramax and Sony (Charts)-owned Columbia as well as independents like Lionsgate (Charts) spend a lot of money to campaign for nominations and awards since acclaim does tend to lead to higher box office revenue and DVD sales for nominated movies. (Time Warner also owns CNNMoney.com)
"Getting an Oscar has a huge impact on a movie's box office not only immediately but forever since it has a positive effect on DVD sales. There is a lot riding on it financially," Nett said.
That may be true. Lionsgate definitely was helped by increased DVD sales of "Crash" after it won Best Picture last year.
Still, while there will be a big to-do about the Academy Awards this Sunday and Forest Whitaker, Helen Mirren, Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy are likely to be the toast of Tinseltown, the harsh reality is that the carryover effect for actors and actresses who win an Oscar seems to be limited at best.
The big studios should take note.
The reporter of this story owns shares of Time Warner through his company's 401(k) plan.