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For movies, being nominated for an Oscar can be just as good as winning

The team behind 12 Years a Slave, the 2014 Best Picture winner
The team behind 12 Years a Slave, the 2014 Best Picture winner
Jason Merritt/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

On Sunday, February 22, 2015, a new crop of Oscar winners will be crowned. And a few movies, actors, and behind the scenes personnel will be able to stick "Academy Award Winner" before their names in movie trailers, press releases, and obituaries.

Most of those nominated will lose, but will still get to slap "Academy Award Nominee" or "Academy Award-nominated" on their resumes and IMDB pages.

But what's the benefit of this? Why should you want an Oscar?

Why getting nominated feels a lot like winning

(American Sniper)

For movie executives and producers, getting a nomination is a win in its own right. It can boost a film's box office and its cultural cachet.

This works in two ways. There's the direct effect, where the nomination is seen as a seal of approval and people go seek that movie out. In 2013, Silver Linings Playbook and Lincoln saw, according to The Los Angeles Times, box office bumps of 38 percent and 17 percent, respectively, after the nominations were announced.

There's also a secondary effect. When a film is nominated, it gets elevated into a special crop of movies entertainment journalists write about over and over. It's impossible to quantify how appearing in headlines and stories affects the number of people who want to go out and see the movie.

"Nominations are good for a bump on their own," Phil Contrino of told me. "The win is icing on the cake."

But 2015 was weird…


As Contrino explained to me, the key thing about Silver Linings and Lincoln was that those films were still in the heart of their theatrical releases when Oscar nominations were announced. Executives prefer to make money in theaters, because the movie is being "sold" to consumers at a higher price point, and momentum in theaters often leads to bigger home viewing.

This didn't happen to the majority of Oscar-nominated movies in 2015. The Grand Budapest Hotel for instance, was released back in March of 2014. Boyhood was released in July, and both Whiplash and Boyhood were at the tail end of their releases when the nominations were announced.

The 2015 Best Picture nominee that benefited the most from the nominations was American Sniper, which made almost $90 million on its wide-release opening weekend (a day after nominations were announced). But even then, it's unclear how much of that haul was solely because of nominations.

"American Sniper had enthusiastic word-of-mouth recommendations," Contrino said, explaining that the word-of-mouth and the film's controversy interested people. "The Oscar nominations validated the movie even more."

If the general rule is that movies that get nominated for Oscars tend to see a boost, why not schedule your movies around the time the nominations are announced?

Contrino says the movie business isn't that simple. It's a bit like trend forecasting. Distributors don't know which movies will stick and which will flame out, so they place their bets on certain movies. Sometimes, that doesn't pan out. Sometimes, it works too well.

"You can point to Boyhood," he told me. Boyhood had its limited release in July and went to a wide release in August. It was released for home viewing on January 6 — a little over a week before nominations were out.

When it was released, "I don't think anybody thought it was going to be favorite to win Best Picture," he added.

What an Oscar does for actors and actresses

(Photo by Jason LaVeris/WireImage)

An Oscar is considered the loftiest prize a movie actor or actress can receive. But that doesn't always translate to more money or better projects. Quite simply, winning an Oscar doesn't guarantee sustained success.

One of the concrete examples of an instant Oscar "raise" is Jamie Foxx. After he snagged Best Actor for his performance in Ray, he re-negotiated his pay in the movie of Miami Vice. Foxx was reportedly being paid less than co-star Colin Farrell.

Slate reported:

Foxx balked at flying commercial to Miami (Universal finally gave him the jet). And there was an early problem because Foxx was getting paid less than Farrell even though he was now an Academy Award winner. Foxx got a big raise while Farrell took a bit of a cut.

As HitFix points out, there are actors like Angelina Jolie, Marion Cotillard, Helen Mirren, and Benicio Del Toro who were able to up their asking prices in subsequent movies after Oscar wins. Even popcorn movies like having Oscar winners in their casts because that gives people another incentive to see it and marketers another avenue for promotion. What's important for actors, though, is that they make sound decisions on the type of roles they pursue after their wins.

For every Angelina Jolie, Tom Hanks, or Colin Firth, there are actors who fell off the radar. Cuba Gooding Jr., Jennifer Hudson, and Adrien Brody are particular names that come to mind.

With an Oscar win, it's an opportunity either for an actor "to join the upper echelons, or to become somebody who is viewed as not living up to their potential," Contrino said. "The benefits can go away pretty fast."

And Hollywood isn't fair. The gender gap is still alive and well.

When the Sony e-mails leaked last year, we learned American Hustle co-stars, Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence and four-time nominee Amy Adams (who would receive a fifth nomination for her work in Hustle), were both paid less than their male compatriots.

Because roles for older women are still scarce, it's an unfortunate truth that there's more of a benefit for a woman to win while she's young than there is for a woman to parlay that success into high-paying roles if she's older. Hollywood is generally kinder to older male winners. Think of Firth who won his first Oscar in 2010 at the age of 50 and has continued to work steadily.

Creatively, Oscars matter too


One of the biggest complaints with this year's Oscars was the lack of diversity in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and in the group's choices. In particular, people were upset at the perceived snubs of Selma director, Ava DuVernay, and the film's star, David Oyelowo.

But as Dr. Darnell Hunt, the director of the Ralph Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA pointed out to me, the lack of recognition for Selma is more worrisome because it could affect other diverse projects in the pipeline.

" The Oscars set a standard. The Academy establishes benchmarks," he said, explaining that those who make decisions as to which films will be made see the Oscars as a barometer. Higher-ups will put their faith and money in movies that are similar to the ones that win awards.

"An Oscar win increases likelihood for more alternative points of view, if they're being rewarded," he said.

Even though there's worth in a win, there's a growing feeling the Oscars are still lagging behind. Increasingly, it seems as if the Academy only matters when it does something out of step with itself.

"[An Oscar win] hardly matters much except when it matters. 12 Years a Slave's win matters. Birdman's win will hardly matter except that you could say an Hispanic director won two years in a row," Sasha Stone of Awards Daily told me. Stone has been covering the Oscars for 16 years, and is one of the Academy's biggest critics when it comes to the group's lack of diversity.

All of this may be why the Oscars' TV ratings continue a general decline and why that Oscar bump gets a little less prominent with every year.

"For the most part, people out there in the world don't pay much attention to the Oscars any more. Much of that has to do with how insular they have become in the past 15 years," Stone said.