An interesting thing happened at the box office this Thanksgiving. The top two spots were taken, predictably enough, by the new Bond movie, Skyfall, and the final part of the Twilight Saga, Breaking Dawn Part 2. But right behind Bond and Bella at number 3 was Abe Lincoln, as given flesh by Daniel Day-Lewis in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. To date it has taken $62 million, almost its entire production budget, in just two weeks. It may be the year’s most unlikely blockbuster. Of the three passes Spielberg has made at the subject of slavery — The Color Purple in 1982, Amistad in 1997 — Lincoln is by far the least Spielbergian. There is no action to speak of, only the skimpiest of battles scenes, little grand oratory, a bare minimum of John Williams music, and no glimpse of the assassination. The film instead gives its audience 149 minutes of dense political maneuvering in dark smoke-filled rooms, as Lincoln hunts down the votes necessary to pass the 13th amendment. It’s a film about process, a political procedural. What’s particularly impressive is that Lincoln is playing as well in red states as well as blue, as if buoyed by the small swell of bipartisanship in Washington in the wake of Obama’s re-election. “This is more a film for Robert Caro than for the masters of combat video games,” wrote DavidThomson, a decided Spielberg agnostic, in the pages of The New Republic:—
…to see it in the immediate aftermath of Barack Obama’s second election is the way to go. You can tell yourself that the resulting surge of emotion is a matter of chance, or God-given, but then you realize that Steven must have organized it this way. He foresaw our moment, he designed his opening, and Lincoln is especially momentous as the second Obama administration realizes there is no peace for the elected. It would have had a different resonance if the November 6 result had gone the other way. But Steven—not for the first time—planned an opening that would work either way.
In other words, Spielberg’s knack for national pulse-taking — which turned Jaws and E.T. into national events, and Saving Private Ryan into a generational salute — hasn’t deserted him. Might Spielberg be on the verge of joining Frank Capra and William Wyler in the paddock of three-time Best Director Oscar Winners?
The Academy have been remarkably slow to honor Spielberg, and certainly not for his early quartet of films — Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. — which rank among the greater glories of American popular cinema. His emergence as a box-office pied piper in late seventies and early eighties — with — coincided with the academy’s Knights In White Flannel phase, when they turned to the British period dramas like Chariots of Fire and Ghandhi to reassure themselves that the rivers of cash they were busy making from big summer hits like Spielberg’s didn’t suggest anything too unseemly about the business. As Spielberg noted, painfully, on the day of the nominations in 1976, when Jaws received only four nominations and Fellini nabbed his spot for Best Director. “This is called commercial backlash. When a film makes a lot of money people resent it. Everybody loves a winner but nobody loves a winner.” Not until Forrest Gump in 1993, could the academy bring themselves to reward a film that made over $100 million, thus opening up the way for Titanic and Lord of the Rings.
The Academy’s attitude to the big money-makers is still ambivalent, witness the annual game everyone goes through trying to predict a nomination for something like Harry Potter — or is it the new Christopher Nolan? Or maybe the new Bond? —in order to fill out the new expanded nomination berth, only to see it filled instead with something small, worthy and unwinning from the indie sphere. “The voters often like low budget/high return best and they hate high budget/low return most” writes SashaStone at Awards Daily, which is why Life of Pi, which cost $120 million, and was released this weekend to take in a respectable $30 will have to keep that up to become the Avatar-like must-see phenomenon it needs to be to win Best Picture in February. It’s still the best-looking dark horse out there.
What the Academy really likes to see, above all else, is this:—
That’s the box office takings of Slumdog Millionaire, the 2009 winner, from Box Office Mojo. See that first big spike at around 80 days? That’s the film getting nominated. And the second big spike at about 110 days? That’s it’s win on February 22nd — the so-called ‘Oscar Bounce’, a much under-appreciated factor in the Oscar Race, not for the money, but for what that money means: the world is listening. The Academy, like all of us, likes to be listened to. It wants its recommendation to carry weight. Which isn’t to say that it can boss people around. They certainly don’t want a repeat of this: —
That’s the box office graph for Crash, that most wretched of winners from 2006, which tanked at the box office, despite being pumped full of Oscar steroids. The Academy want to play king-maker, not Svengali. The film must be already on its way up before they give it a lift. It’s box office doesn’t even have to be all that big. As I said, this is not about the money. Here, for instance, is the graph for The HurtLocker, the lowest-grossing film ever to win the Academy Award for best picture:—
It’s exactly the same as the Slumdog Millionaire curve, except in miniature. So what is this about, if it’s not about the money?
There’s one other thing the two graphs have in common. Thy bear a startling resemblance to the kind of box-office takings films used to make, in the land Time Forgot, before $100 million marketing campaigns and day-and-date saturation releases in 3,000 cinemas all but guaranteed a first-weekend audience of semi-satiated teenagers for your 13-writer franchise hopeful, KerPlunk: The Movie, thus allowing it to join Battleship and Total Recall and all those Not Quite Hits and Unexploded Bombs, neither wildly popular nor devastatingly unpopular, just there, circling the earth like blimps, slowly raking in DVD rentals from Abu Dhabi and pay-per-view from Peking.
The obsession with box office numbers is a modern phenomenon, dating to the mid-eighties, but so too is cynicism about the numbers. The academy are not just nostalgics in their taste in films: they’re nostalgic about the numbers too. Those Oscar winning bellwethers recall an older, simpler time when word-of-mouth still existed, when films built their audience, and a purchased ticket didn't just meant money for the film’s producer. It also meant, as likely as not — certainly if it occurred two or three weeks into a film’s run — that the person who purchased it had enjoyed themselves. Or if they didn’t enjoy themselves at least been directed there by someone who had. It meant a hit.
If such talk is too populist for you, then think of it this way: that purchased ticket was the equivalent of one good review, and a million of those tickets meant a million good reviews. The public voted and the way they voted produced a remarkable accurate relief map of their affections. The more curvaceous the curve, the deeper the love. You want to know what audience love for a movie looks like? It looks like this.
That’s the curve for Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of The Southern Wild. It doesn’t stand a chance of winning the Best Picture Oscar, but if it gets a nomination — and it should — it will have something to do with the shape of that graph. Which is why Spielberg’s team at Dreamworks can afford to be a little excited by this early flutter in the public breast:—