In the weeks leading up to the 2020 Academy Awards telecast on Sunday, Hollywood studios and Netflix have poured tens of millions of dollars into billboards on Hollywood Boulevard, ads in trade publications, and “very special” screenings in hopes of bringing home an Oscar.
The gold-plated statuette itself is worth only $1, per the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s official regulations, which say winners cannot sell their Oscar without first offering to sell it back to the academy for $1. Of course, the industry feels Oscar’s true value is priceless.
“How can you put a price tag on it? There aren’t too many things in the world like it. There are a limited number of them, you can’t buy one, and everyone wants one,” says John Sloss, who has produced or executive produced over 60 films including the Academy Award–winning The Fog of War, Boys Don’t Cry, Boyhood, and last year’s Best Picture winner, Green Book.
The Oscar bestows a stamp of approval, one with the chance to boost a movie’s box office grosses, raise the profile of the talent involved, and cement its reputation for eternity.
“Having an Oscar nomination for a film is like holding a potential lottery ticket,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst at Comscore.
Box office bounce
A couple of decades ago, Oscar-winning movies could generally rely on the “Oscar bounce” at the box office, where they’d see big jumps in ticket sales following a Best Picture win, as was the case with films like Shakespeare in Love (1999) and American Beauty (2000). That’s no longer the case, partially because movies stay in theaters for shorter time periods than they once did.
“Nowadays, the Oscar bounce is more of a nomination bounce,” says Dergarabedian. “The films that are in theaters when nominations are announced generally get a nice bump. By the time of the awards telecast, there’s not much of a bounce, because most movies are completely played out by then.”
While the Oscar bounce hasn’t been as significant as it once was, in recent years, some movies have still seen a decent payout. When Universal Pictures initially released Green Book in November 2018, it had only so-so box office results. After the controversial race relations drama set in the 1960s South won Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (for Mahershala Ali), and Best Original Screenplay at the 2019 Academy Awards, it enjoyed the biggest Oscar bounce in nearly a decade (since 2010’s The King’s Speech).
Films released at the end of the year, which hit theaters just in time to qualify for Academy Awards consideration, are primed to benefit the most from a nomination and/or win. Film studios often hold off on releasing films they deem “Oscar-worthy” until later in the year, partially so they’ll be fresh in Academy voters’ minds.
Aside from Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, which hit theaters in late July, all of this year’s Best Picture nominees were released later in the year. Little Women and 1917 both hit theaters on Christmas Day and are still flourishing at the box office.
“The newer a film is to the marketplace or the more recent the expansion into wide release, the bigger the potential benefit from Oscar nominations,” says Dergarabedian.
This year, because of an earlier Oscar telecast date, the window between nominations and the awards telecast was limited, which will likely curtail theatrical benefits from a nomination bump. Of course, there’s still the potential to reap rewards from home video and international box office. Aside from 1917 and Little Women, which are still in theaters, all of the Best Picture nominees are available on streaming and/or VOD platforms. They’re also primed to do well on home video.
A day after Parasite, Bong Joon Ho’s Korean-language thriller, earned six Oscar nominations, movie ticketing service Fandango announced that the film debuted at No. 4 on FandangoNow’s top five preordered video titles of all time. “The film’s six Oscar nominations has only increased fan anticipation to watch and re-watch the film as it finally arrives at home,” Fandango managing editor Erik Davis said in a statement.
The timing couldn’t have been better for Parasite’s Blu-ray and DVD release on Jan. 28—more than a week before the Oscar ceremony.
The Netflix factor
Two Best Picture contenders—Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story—are Netflix releases. Eager for Oscar prestige, the company has reportedly spent at least $60 million on awards season campaigns, per Variety. They won’t experience a theatrical “bounce,” but the nominations (and possible wins) are an added value for the streaming service.
“The theatrical point of [Netflix’s] films is really not significant to their bottom line,” says Dergarabedian. “They’re using their films to increase their subscriber base. Plus, they want the prestige associated with the Oscars.”
Though Netflix’s Roma was nominated for Best Picture and other major awards in 2019, this year seems to represent a turning point for Netflix, which, for the first time ever, received more nominations—24—than any other major Hollywood studio or distributor.
“We don’t have the financial formula yet to figure out whether it’s worth it to Netflix to mount a big Oscar campaign just to get more subscribers. But I don’t think they’d be doing it if they didn’t think it was worthwhile,” says Jonathan Kuntz, film historian and lecturer at the UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television.
Of course, there’s more to gain from an Oscar win than box office grosses or subscriber growth.
Not a quantifiable figure
“It’s not really about translating to a quantifiable financial value,” says Sloss. “This is not a business that’s primarily motivated by financial gain. Very few people think that film is a very good pure financial investment.”
Still, an Academy Award bestows industry respect—and bragging rights. For some producers, that alone is priceless.
“There is zero downside, to put it mildly, to getting an Oscar nomination or a win. It gives any movie a new lease on life. It gives every movie that gets nominated a prestige factor and a legacy that lives on with the movie,” says Dergarabedian.
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