erik lundegaard

Are Best Picture Nominees Making a Box-Office Comeback?

In June 2009, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences announced a break with more than 65 years of tradition by doubling the number of best picture nominees from five to 10. It's obvious why they did this. During the 2000s, the Academy was no longer nominating box office champs, and the ratings for the TV broadcasts were down, and there was fear that Oscar was on the verge of irrelevancy.

So what's happened since?

Last year, box office champs were indeed nominated, including “Avatar” (No. 1), “Up” (No. 5), and “The Blind Side” (No. 8), and the ratings for the TV broadcast did indeed go up: by 14 percent. Some may argue that's a lousy tradeoff: a 100 percent increase in best-picture nominees to get a 14 percent increase in TV ratings. But it's been done. Can't be undone.

But the move also seemed to allow the Academy to ignore box office altogether when it came time to actually giving out its awards. For more than 20 years, the best picture winner had the best or second-best box office among the nominees. (“American Beauty” was an exception: it had the third-best box office among 1999's nominees.) “The Hurt Locker” last year? Eighth among the 10 nominees. That's the same as fourth among five, and that hasn't happened since 1988, when “The Last Emperor” got the Oscar. More telling: “The Hurt Locker” ranked 116th for the year. The previous box-office low for a best-picture winner, as far as I can tell, was “Crash”: 49th in 2005.)

Most important, and despite the above calculations (fourth of five = eighth of 10), the doubling-down of BP noms has made it difficult to compare current nominees with past nominees to see where we stand. The Academy has disconnected itself from its past.

This year's best-picture nominees, for example, the ones that feel like best picture nominees (as opposed to, say, “The Blind Side”), are doing shockingly well at the box office. To wit:

  • “True Grit.” Only two Coen brothers' movies have grossed over $50 million: “Burn After Reading” in 2008 ($60m) and “No Country for Old Men” in 2007 ($74m). Six of their 15 films didn't even gross $10 million. But “True Grit”? It's already shot past $150 million and could wind up the 11th or 12th highest-grossing film of the year.
  • The Coens, though, are Steven Spielberg compared to Darren Aronofsky, whose films have grossed, chronologically, $5, $5, $12 and $29 million. But “Black Swan,” about ballet of all things, starring a girl of all things, is about to pass $100 million in U.S. grosses. (It's currently at $96 million.)
  • “Black Swan” has done better than even “The Fighter,” which is about boys and boxing. But David O. Russell's film is still doing well: $82 million. As is “The King's Speech” ($84 million), which is coming on gangbusters. In fact, every movie by a best director nominee is in the top 50 in terms of annual box office.

Having every best picture nominee in the top 50 used to happen all the time, even as recently as the 1990s, when it happened four times (1990, 1991, 1992, 1997). But in the 2000s it happened only once, in 2000, and the trend was definitely in the opposite direction. In 2006, for example, every best picture nominee save one (“The Departed”), finished out of the top 50.

So it would be nice to compare this year with previous years to see where we stand. But we can't. We resort, as Nathaniel resorted here, to guessing games. We resort to sounding like lawyers drawing up a contract:

  • IF the Academy were still nominating five best pictures nominees, and ... 
  • IF those five nominees were the five nominees in the best-director category (“The Social Network,” “True Grit,” “The Fighter,” “Black Swan” and “The King's Speech”) ...
  • THEN the five best picture nominees would all be in the top 50 in terms of annual box office for the first time since 2000.

The irony. The Academy doubled its best-picture nominees to 10 for fear of box-office irrelevance. But the change has frustrated our abiity to gauge its current box-office relevance.

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Posted at 09:56 AM on Sun. Feb 06, 2011 in category Movies - The Oscars  

COMMENTS

anon wrote:

Erik, a couple of things

(1) Fear of box office irrelevance may not have been the only factor. Tom Sherak has discussed how he would like to see a foreign film or documentary get a “Best Picture” nod, and stuff like that is often not box office fodder.

(2) While they would be in the top 50, none of the films with a best director nomination is in the top 10. They're very successful in terms of a profit and what not, but almost every year (the exception being the one where Amadeus won) from 1955-to LOTR, at least one of the nominees was among the top 10 box office hits of the year. When Million Dollar Baby, The Departed, Crash, No Country for Old Men, and Slumdog Millionaire won, this was not the case. I doubt it would have been this year either, though I'm not sure what the 5th spot would have been. Many say look at director, but it may not reveal what the BP nods in a year with 5 would be. There were best picture nominations without a corresponding director's nod (Atonement, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Moulin Rouge!, Little Miss Sunshine, Chocolat, Finding Neverland). If we take for granted that the 5 BD noms would have gotten in a year of 5, the box office would be good by recent years' standards, but not necessarily historic standards when almost every slate included a top ten hit.

(3) One point you've made in analyses looking at box office generally is to look at per theater dollars, but this can be misleading, because art house audiences may respond to some films more favorably than your typical AMC or Regal. For example, The Kids Are All Right and Cyrus did not grow as much as many box office analysts expected because people responded to them differently.

Comment posted on Mon. Feb 07, 2011 at 03:53 PM

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