The Oscars and Box Office: This Again, Again
If you‘re a best picture nominee that did well at the box office, you used to have a good shot at winning. No longer.
I’ve been busy since the Oscars—mostly being sick with the neverending crud—but I did want to post on this phenomenon since it's still holding true.
For the 20 years before 2009, when the Academy widened its best picture nominees from five to 10, the eventual Oscar winner was almost always the first- or second-biggest box-office draw among the nominees:
|1990||2||3||17||23||26||Dances with Wolves|
|1991||3||4||16||17||25||Silence of the Lambs|
|1996||4||19||41||67||108||The English Patient|
|1998||1||18||35||59||65||Shakespeare in Love|
|2001||2||11||43||59||68||A Beautiful Mind|
|2003||1||17||31||33||67||The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King|
|2004||22||24||37||40||61||Million Dollar Baby|
|2007||15||36||50||55||66||No Country for Old Men|
Since the Academy expanded to 10 nominees in 2009 (and then up to 10 starting in 2011), and implemented the preferential ballot in 2009, the winner is never from the top three box-office draws among the nominees. At best, it's fourth; it could be as low as eighth:
|2009||1||5||8||25||27||38||65||116||132||145||The Hurt Locker|
|2010||1||6||13||18||25||32||35||114||119||143||The King's Speech|
|2013||6||17||28||32||62||80||95||100||117||12 Years a Slave|
|2017||14||15||39||46||51||52||56||105||112||The Shape of Water|
What to make of this? Some guesses:
- Under the old rules, the top three nominees in terms of box office would never have been nominated in the first place: Movies like “Black Panther,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Get Out,” “The Martian,” “Toy Story 3,” “Inception,” etc. So they‘re certainly not going to win. You can dismiss those three columns entirely. It’s all a show.
- Follow up: Mostly true. But I think movies like “Avatar” (top draw in 2009) and “Gravity” (tops in 2013) would‘ve gotten nominated under the old rules; certainly “Lincoln” (top draw in 2012). All of those movies were also presumed to be best picture winners. They were frontrunners. Then poof.
- Merely nominating the boffo box office pictures frees Academy members to choose the picture they actually like rather than the one that’s popular. It's like [wiping hands], “Well, we‘ve done our duty.”
- In the past, once a movie won best picture, moviegoers flocked to it to see what the hubub was about; now they don’t. Now, at best, they wait for it to be available for home viewing.
- It's a fluke.
Not sure how the preferential ballot factors into all of this. It supposedly pushes concensus choices to the top, like “Green Book,” but this has been one of our artier decades in terms of best picture winners.
Speaking of: “Green Book” has been doing OK business since the Oscars but it still won't gross more than $100 million. This will be the sixth year in a row without a $100-million best picture winner. This used to be a regular thing (every bp winner between 1997 and 2004 grossed north of $100 mil) and now it's a nowhere thing. The 1980s had five best pictures that grossed more than $100 million—and that's unadjusted. This decade, with one year to go, has two: “The King's Speech” and “Argo.”
A quick tabulation of $100-million best picture winners, via Box Office Mojo:
- 1980s: 5
- 1990s: 7
- 2000s: 7
- 2010s: 2
Again: that's unadjusted.
I don't see how this trend will change, either. The Academy wants to be a distinguished body, honoring prestigious work, but they‘re living in a country that’s more and more infantilized—often, ironically, by the work of its own industry.