As anticipation over what movie will win the best picture Oscar bubbles up each year, it’s inevitable that many casual movie fans will complain they’ve never seen — and in some cases, never heard of — several nominated films.
The complaint that the movies nominated for best picture aren’t well known (thus, not well liked) has dogged the Oscars for nearly two decades . The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which hosts the awards show, seems to at least partially agree with this assessment. In 2009, after backlash that the superhero blockbuster “The Dark Knight” wasn’t nominated, the academy expanded the number of possible nods for best picture to up to 10, in a bid to showcase “popular yet still respected films . . . and perhaps drive more viewers to the show as a result,” Variety reported.
Then, last year, the academy briefly introduced a new category recognizing achievement in popular film, arguably in an attempt to attract greater viewership. It reneged on the idea after facing an onslaught of backlash from critics and fans asking why popular movies couldn’t also be considered “best.”
With so much attention paid to how popular the best picture nods are, we decided to dig through the numbers to see whether these complaints — and subsequent attempts to address them — have any bearing in reality. We dug through years of best picture winners and nominations and used domestic box office grosses to measure popularity. (Note: All numbers have been rounded and adjusted for inflation.)
Here’s what we found.
The short answer is, not particularly, at least not recently.
A look at the average box office gross of best picture nominees during the past 20 years shows that their popularity has, in general, been declining.
Although movies in general made $11.1 billion in 2017, the average box-office gross for the eight films nominated for best picture at the 2018 Oscars was about $80 million. That’s less than the 40 most popular movies from that year.
The two most popular movies of the bunch (“Dunkirk” and “Get Out”), which each earned more than $180 million, dramatically helped raise the average earnings, which are still fairly dismal. No other nominated movie made $100 million. (For comparison, the top 10 highest-earning movies of 2017 each made at least double that amount.) Meanwhile, the least popular movie in the bunch was “Call Me by Your Name,” which earned less than $18 million.
That’s still better than some years. Since 1998, we’ve had four years in which only one best picture nod topped $100 million. These numbers are remarkable when one considers that studios routinely spend $200 million merely on the marketing of summer blockbusters.
So, yes, for the most part, the movies the Oscars celebrate are not very popular. And the few noticeable spikes — 1997, 2009 and 2018 — tend to be on the shoulders of a single movie or two with such tremendous success, it’s an outlier. “Titanic,” one of the all-time highest-grossing movies, was nominated (and won) in 1998, and “Avatar,” which made more than $850 million, was nominated in 2010.
No, not at all. In fact, for many years, the Oscars heartily rewarded blockbuster films. Movies made in the 1970s that won best picture included classics such as “Rocky” and “Kramer vs. Kramer.”
In this decade, the lowest-grossing best picture winner was a close race to the bottom between “The Hurt Locker” ($20.4 million) and “Moonlight” ($28.8 million).
That’s not even mentioning the many towering blockbusters that were nominated but didn’t win in the ’70s, such as the first “Star Wars,” “Jaws,” “Taxi Driver,” “All the President’s Men,” “The Exorcist” and “M*A*S*H,” to name a few.
Oscar movies were still pulling in impressive amounts of dough at the turn of the millennium, just 15 to 20 years ago. The average box office grosses for best picture noms from 2000 to 2005 ranged from $114 million to $217 million.
It’s difficult to pinpoint a specific reason for the decline, because it’s probably related to several different factors, not all of them negative.
Perhaps the biggest is the sheer number of movies being made these days. There were 199 films released in the United States in 1977, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. Forty years later, in 2017, that number jumped to 777.
But even though there are more movies, fewer people are actually seeing them in theaters. Movie attendance hit a 22-year low in 2017, when 1.24 billion tickets were sold (at a record-high price, which accounts for why box office revenue trends upward, even while attendance is down).
Meanwhile, many filmmakers face substantial obstacles gaining funding (and marketing) for mid- to low-budget movies. “Something happened that nobody can make a movie between $500,000 and $80 million. That can’t be possible,” Matthew Weiner, the creator of “Mad Men,” told the New York Times in 2010.
What appears to have happened is the rise of global blockbusters. Studios now bet on movies with gargantuan budgets — such as the Avengers franchise, which routinely cost well over $200 million to make — than on mid-budget films such as “The Godfather,” which cost $37 million. If these movies don’t make the money domestically, they still have a chance of performing well overseas. As the Atlantic’s David Sims noted, “Hollywood is increasingly shying away from making such small-budget movies, as multiyear franchises have become the financial norm for multinational conglomerates looking to move the stock-market needle with each big release.”
So, sure, some lower-budget movies exist. But now they compete against those with gargantuan budgets (and are marketed accordingly). In 2017, “The Shape of Water” cost $20 million to make and went on to win best picture. That year’s most popular movie, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” cost $317 million.
Whether it matters or not is difficult to discern. The academy certainly appears to think that the popularity of the best picture nods affects the award show’s viewership, which is somewhat supported by the data.
Viewership of the ceremony has been declining over the past two decades, with small spikes in years with more popular movies. But it’s difficult to point to any cause, especially considering the many other circumstances at play: the declining appeal of live television, the backlash against the academy for its lack of diversity and, of course, who hosts on any particular year.
Regardless, the academy is trying to include more popular films in its telecast, and this year might finally signal the sea change it’s been seeking. Discounting “Roma,” because it was released primarily via Netflix, the average box-office gross of this year’s nominations is $187 million — a full $107 million more than last year and the highest it has been since 2010, the first year with an expanded nomination field.
Of course, this could be an anomaly. The number is primarily buoyed by the success of “Black Panther” ($695 million), “A Star Is Born” ($212 million) and “Bohemian Rhapsody” ($214 million).
Will this affect viewership? It’s impossible to tell. The fact that the show is going on sans host might have even more of an impact than what’s nominated. But one thing is clear: The academy achieved its goal this year of celebrating popular movies, with or without a category specifically for them.