"Argo" is widely expected to capture the Academy Award for Best Picture on Sunday, but when it comes to profits, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is this Oscar season's biggest winner.
The little indie that could was produced for a mere $1.5 million and pulled off a worldwide gross of $22 million. Though perfectly respectable for an avant-garde picture with no stars, that final tally is a far cry from blockbuster status. Indeed, it's one of the lowest grossing Best Picture nominees, but it still represents the biggest return on investment for its producers. The film made more than ten times its budget -- a better return even than "Life of Pi," which is tops in terms of total box office among all the Best Picture nominees.
As for "Argo," Ben Affleck and company may be the one's hoisting that gold statue aloft when the final envelope is opened at Sunday night's show, but the movie itself is an also-ran when it comes to profitability. The Iranian hostage crisis thriller was produced for $44.5 million and netted $204.6 million worldwide, more than three times what it cost to film. That's a sterling investment, one most movie producers would be thrilled to see, however, it's less than "Silver Linings Playbook," "Life of Pi" and "Les Misérables," all of which saw bigger returns.
Much has been written in the Hollywood trades this year about how commercially successful the current crop of Best Picture nominees are when compared to previous contests. Last year, one film, "The Help," crossed $100 million at the domestic box office. This time, an astounding six films have already crossed that barrier and another one, "Zero Dark Thirty," is poised to top $100 million in stateside ticket sales when it concludes its run.
But there are flaws with that rubric. After all, in an age of ballooning budgets, $100 million is not the magic number it was even five years ago. Many films that hit that figure at the domestic box office still have to rely on ancillary revenue from DVD and video-on-demand in order to claw their way back to profitability.
A sounder means of analysis is to compare the costs of this year's crop of contenders with their grosses, with the caveat -- and it's a big one -- that this does not take into account marketing expenditures. Moreover, a film's gross does not represent pure profit for its studio or producer, as exhibitors take a sizable chunk of a movie's ticket sales.
Nor does looking at box office allow for the financial windfall that "Argo" and others will receive on the home video front should they pick up a few golden guys on Sunday and get the opportunity to plaster "Oscar Winner!" on DVD and Blu-ray cases. Moreover, many of the nominated films, like "Lincoln," are still in theaters and still rolling out in foreign territories, meaning there are more opportunities to cash in on the awards buzz.
Still, even if "Beasts of the Southern Wild" fails to capture an Oscar in any of the four categories in which it is nominated, it's still ranks as a big winner for its investors. After all, Academy Awards are nice, but this is still a business. Right?
Here's a look at the Best Picture nominees in order of their return on investment: