Three weeks in a row, the box office has been very kind to dramas. First, Ben Affleck's thriller, "The Town," followed through on its film-festival hype and scored a $23.8 million opening, solidifying its Oscar chances. Then came "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," without much hope for Oscar glory but with $19 million in box-office business. This past weekend, "The Social Network" kept the #1 drama streak alive with a $23 million opening.
Yet some box-office prognosticators suggested the film could open as high as $30 million. So what happened? And is the film about Facebook's founding still a strong contender come awards season?
"MySpace, this is not," said Jeff Bock, box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations. " 'Social Network' has longevity written all over it. 'The Town' has received overwhelming critical acclaim, and from weekend to weekend, it is showing its mighty legs, and 'The Social Network' will follow a similar trajectory, dropping minimally week in and week out. And when a film is this well received across the board — audiences and critics — it goes a long way with Oscar voters."
In fact, those voters sat down over the weekend for a screening at the Academy's headquarters in Beverly Hills, and according to The Hollywood Reporter, the audience's reaction was overwhelmingly positive. The film's critical buzz and already-robust box-office business surely influenced those reactions.
"Strong grosses serve to validate the buzz that has been generated by critics," said Phil Contrino, editor of BoxOffice.com. "If a film can combine glowing reviews with strong receipts, then it makes it much more difficult for the Academy to ignore it."
But why didn't "The Social Network" cross the $30 million mark, as some had predicted? The film was the beneficiary of nearly blanket media coverage and an aggressive marketing campaign and told a story directly connected to the current day's pop-culture conversation. What's more, even a film like "21" — likewise telling a story about hyper-intelligent college students and their brainy shenanigans, but hardly being critically lauded — grossed $24.1 million in 2008.
Gitesh Pandya of Box Office Guru points out that "Social Network," unlike "21" and even "The Town," did not have the benefit of A-listers in the cast. Plus, it had to compete with "Town" and "Wall Street." Steven Zeitchik of the Los Angeles Times, meanwhile, speculates that the film's geographical performance — strong on the coasts, less so in Middle America — suffered from "a perception of the film as a story of a group of real-life rich Harvard kids fighting over credit."
Regardless of the reasons "Social Network" came out of the weekend on the low end of its box-office predictions, there's no doubting the drama's very solid opening. The film could well battle for a Best Picture nomination, a writing nod for Aaron Sorkin and directing recognition for David Fincher, who is no stranger to Academy voters. Stars Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield and Armie Hammer have all been mentioned for possible acting nominations.
"It just has to keep the momentum up between now and Oscar time, which is a long journey," Pandya said. "The Oscar season is still young and anything could happen. Fifty-two weeks ago, nobody thought 'The Blind Side' had any shot at a Best Picture nomination."
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