Money at the Movies: Will The Oscars Reward a Box Office Winner or a Total No-Show?

Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody were international smash hits, while Roma drastically increased its viewership by skipping theatres entirely.

Last year on this blog, we set out on a slightly cock-eyed mission to predict the 2018 Oscar winner for Best Picture based on how much money the films had earned at the box office. After sorting through 20 years of data on all the Best Picture winners and nominees and picking out some statistical trends, we came to the conclusion that … Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri was going to win the big prize.

Okay, so we biffed it. But we weren’t way off, either, as we identified the eventual winner, The Shape of Water as one of the top candidates to take home the big prize. Rather than try and simply repeat the experiment this year, we decided to take a broader view of the relationship between the Oscars and the box office.

Why? Because after years of rewarding films with modest grosses and snubbing the year’s biggest box office performers, this year could look a lot different. Not only are there two serious contenders for Best Picture that were also box office hits, but the odds-on favorite to win the top award didn’t record any box office grosses at all.


Since expanding to 10 nominees, box office gold means a Best Picture loss.

(All figures via Box Office Mojo.)

After snubbing Christopher Nolan’s critical and box-office success The Dark Knight in 2009, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (aka, The Academy), decided things needed to change. For the 2010 Oscars, they expanded the Best Picture field to 10 nominees. Two years later, they tweaked the system to allow for anywhere between five and 10 nominees; every year since has seen either eight or nine films nominated.

The results …. were probably not what they had in mind. Despite the inclusion of massively successful films like Avatar, Up, and The Blindside, the first film to win Best Picture after they expanded the field was The Hurt Locker, the lowest-grossing winner in the 20 years we sampled. (For a more thorough breakdown of the Best Picture nominees and their box office performances, check out last year’s post.)

And this wasn’t a one-off incident either. Since the Best Picture slate expanded in 2009, none of the top-three grossing nominees in any given year has won Best Picture. Only three out of a possible nine winners sat in the top half of their respective fields: The King’s Speech (2011), Argo (2013), and last year’s The Shape of Water, all of which placed fourth.

The change was intended to let in more popular films like The Dark Knight—and it did. But it did the opposite as well, swelling the Best Picture ranks with smaller films that, at the very least, haven’t helped the ceremony’s half-decade-long slide in the ratings.

Between 1998 and 2009—all years we sampled in which the Best Picture field contained five nominees—only six films were included that made over $200 million at the box office: Titanic, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Sixth Sense, and Saving Private Ryan. From 2010 on, eleven films with domestic grosses over $200 million have been nominated. That’s almost twice as many! Still, there have been four years where no film earned over $200 million.

On the flipside: Between 1998 and 2009, 19 films that grossed under $50 million domestically were nominated for Best Picture. None of them won: the closest was Crash in 2006, which grossed a little over $54 million. Since 2010, 31 films with grosses under $50 million have been nominated for Best Picture. There was also an increase in Best Picture nominees that grossed under $20 million, from two between 1998 and 2009 to 13 from 2010 on.

Here’s the difference: The bigger movies don’t win, while the smaller movies do. From 1998 to 2009, only two Best Picture winners grossed under $100 million: Crash, and No Country for Old Men ($74 million). (For people who argue that a lower box office haul might be indicative of a better, more artistically worthy film, the fact that Crash was the lowest-grossing winner in that timespan should give them pause.)

Since 2010, six out of nine Best Picture winners have grossed under $50 million: The Hurt Locker ($17 million), The Artist ($44 million), 12 Years a Slave ($27 million), Birdman ($42 million), Spotlight ($45 million), and Moonlight ($27 million). Argo and The King’s Speech are the only post-2009 winners to gross over $100 million, and The Shape of Water grossed $54 million. Argo’s win in 2013 was the last time a film that grossed over $55 million won.

Why is this happening? Blame superheroes and preferential voting.

When the Academy expanded their Best Picture slate, they also made a change to how Best Picture votes are tabulated. They went from a simple “most votes is the winner” system to a far more complicated “preferential” system.

In short: voters rank all the nominated films from first to last. If no film cracks 50 percent of the first place votes, that’s when the fun begins. The film with the fewest number of first-place votes is dropped, and all the second place votes from those ballots are redistributed as first-place votes to the other films. This process repeats itself until one film crosses the 50 percent threshold.

In previous years, a movie could (theoretically, at least) win the Best Picture race with 21 percent of the overall vote. Now, they not only need as many first-place votes as possible to win, but as many second, third, and even fourth place votes as they can muster. While the Academy doesn’t release their voting tallies, it’s a safe bet that many of these films won because they were many people’s second or third favorite nominee.

Needless to say, this preferential voting system has had a huge effect on which films win Best Picture; but so has the way that Hollywood’s changed over the past decade. Namely, they have given themselves over to superheroes, franchises, sequels, and animated kids movies. The sorts of middle-brow, adult-themed fair that used to cost under $100 to make and gross over $150 million domestic is quickly going extinct.

And rather than adjust to this new reality, the Academy has stood firm—likely to their detriment. Back in the day, Hollywood churned out musicals like they were going out of business. Many were bad, but some were very good and successful. Guess what? Those musicals got nominated for and sometimes won Oscars! In fact, An American in Paris, Gigi, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, and Oliver! all won Best Picture.

Even though the Academy expanded The Best Picture field because of The Dark Knight, there were exactly zero comic book movies nominated for Best Picture prior to this year. Other than a couple of Pixar movies (Up, Toy Story 3), and a handful of high-end sci-fi blockbusters (District 9, Inception, Gravity, Mad Max: Fury Road, and The Martian)—pus the surprise hit that was American Sniper—the Academy has steered clear of mainstream popcorn fare.

Until this year, that is …

The 2019 Academy Awards could be unlike any other Oscars in recent memory.

Not only do the 2019 Academy Awards Best Picture nominees boast the largest combined domestic box office haul since 2011, but they contain the first superhero movie ever nominated for Best Picture and the first movie ever nominated from a streaming service.

Before we dive into the weeds, here are the nominees:

NomineeDomestic Box Office
Black Panther$700,059,566
Bohemian Rhapsody$212,313,860
A Star is Born$210,046,694
Green Book$66,921,421
BlacKkKlansman$48,686,605
Vice$46,328,611
The Favourite$31,423,763
RomaN/A

In order to tell the story of the 2019 Best Picture race—and its potentially unique place in recent Oscars history—you need to tell the story of four nominees:

Green Book

From a box office perspective, this is your classic Best picture winner. Leaving aside the fact that it’s a socially-conscious period piece (which also makes it an obvious Best Picture contender), Green Book has a solid yet modest domestic gross of $66 million the kind that puts it right in line with recent winners. Weirdly enough, it would still be the highest-grossing winner since Argo.

Setting aside the various controversies surrounding the film, Green Book would the sort of winner that signals business as usual from the Academy—at least in terms of box office performance.

Black Panther

With a domestic haul of over $700 million, Black Panther was the number one movie at the 2018 U.S. box office. Not only that, it was a genuine cultural phenomenon and a high-water mark for the decade-long, very profitable, Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Finally, 10 years after The Dark Knight’s Oscars snub changed everything, Black Panther finally lived up to the promise: that just because a film is based on a superhero comic, doesn’t mean it isn’t one of the best films of the year.

A Black Panther win would mean a lot of things—many of them far more important than how much money the movie made at the box office—but the Academy finally acknowledging the modern Hollywood era of franchises and superheroes would be no small story.

Roma

When trying to judge the Oscar nominees based on their box office performances, Alfonso Cuaron’s lyrical memoir, Roma, throws everything into a tizzy. Why? Because the film was produced by Netflix and released on their streaming platform.

With an incredibly limited U.S theatrical release to make sure the film qualified—and a slightly wider release to appease cinephiles—the Roma‘s domestic box office numbers are basically zero. (According to Box Office Mojo, a very limited foreign release has brought in $307,000.)

Of course, the irony here is that Cuaron’s film almost certainly got seen by way more people through Netflix than it would have otherwise. Still, Hollywood is worried about how Netflix and other streaming services are upending the movie business—a view that has affected Roma’s Oscar campaign.

Past nominees like Moonlight and 12 Years a Slave provide a clear precedent for a film like Roma, both in terms of artistry and box office performance; neither film cleared $30 million at the box office, which feels about right for a 135-minute, black-and-white foreign language film. (Fellow nominee The Favourite, which grossed just over $31 million, also falls into this category).

In an industry where box office success is synonymous with popularity, a win for Roma could be a sign that The Academy is adjusting to a new age—one where filmmakers trade box office receipts for larger audiences via streaming.

Bohemian Rhapsody

This would definitely be the weirdest winner. In any other year, this Queen biopic would seem like your standard non-contender, but its surprisingly strong performance at the Golden Globes and at a number of the industry Guild awards—plus star Rami Malek’s near-assured Best Actor win for his turn as singer Freddie Mercury—place Bohemian Rhapsody right in the mix.

Despite a tumultuous production process, very mixed reviews, and allegations of sexual abuse against the movie’s original director Bryan Singer, the film has been a hit with audiences, grossing over $212 million dollars domestically—only slightly more than fellow nominee A Star is Born.

But once you factor in its performance overseas, that’s when it separates itself from the rest of the (non-Black Panther) pack. Here are the total worldwide grosses for all eight nominees:

NomineeWorldwide Box Office
Black Panther$1,346,913,161
Bohemian Rhapsody$854,358,785
A Star is Born$423,146,694
Green Book$128,386,261
BlacKkKlansman$90,561,607
Vice$55,728,611
The Favourite$77,850,164
Roma$307,396

Wow. Bohemian Rhapsody was a hit in the U.S., but it was a mega-smash everywhere else. $854 million worldwide is a crazy good number, and Bohemian Rhapsody’s U.S. grosses represent less than a fourth of its overall gross. The only other nominee whose U.S. performance represented less than 50 percent of its worldwide gross was A Star is Born … which came in at 49 percent.

As foreign grosses become an increasingly critical part of Hollywood’s business, the definition of success is changing along with it. Movies that perform well domestically but underperform internationally are judged more harshly, and vice versa. Studios are greenlighting certain projects based on how they can perform across the world, not just in America.

With Roma available worldwide on Netflix and Black Panther claiming the only international box office haul bigger than Bohemian Rhapsody, a win from any of these movies could signify an Oscars sea change away from movies made primarily for U.S. audiences. And with a crowd-pleasing “Queen karaoke” approach that turned off critics, a Bohemian Rhapsody win would truly be a matter of box office returns trumping substance.

No predictions this year, but we’ll be watching.

The Oscars aren’t about how much money a movie has made; they’re about celebrating artistic achievements. Sometimes, making a lot of money and making great art can go hand in hand … but oftentimes they don’t.

And with Oscar ratings declining every year since 2014—with a huge decline for last year’s ceremony—smaller box office performances by the winners and the nominees, in general, could be a sign: When more people care about the movies being nominated, they are more likely to tune in.

For this year’s ceremony, we aren’t interested in making predictions; in part, because this year’s slate is so interesting. Short of Green Book (or even The Favourite) taking home Best Picture, the 2019 Oscars could be the start of something new.

Will the future be filled with blockbuster after blockbuster duking it out for best Best Picture? Probably not, but who knows how many people will tune in to see Black Panther take on Bohemian Rhapsody and Roma. Money talks, as the saying goes; now we’ll see if money can make people watch, too.

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