Money at the Movies: Does Box Office Success Mean a Best Picture Win?

Over the past decade, the Best Picture Award’s relationship to box office success has completely flipped.

When Moonlight won the Oscar for Best Picture last year, there were a lot of thoughts running through people’s minds. Thoughts like:

“Holy cow, what is happening right now!”

“Oh man, someone is going to be in so much trouble for this!”

“This monumental screw-up is the greatest moment in Oscars history.”

“Why won’t Twitter load fast enough?!!!”

One thought that probably didn’t go through your mind was, “Of course they gave it to Moonlight. Historical precedent would state that La La Land made far too much money at the box office to actually win.”

Granted, the way that Moonlight won the award—with La La Land being accidentally announced as the winner and then mass pandemonium ensuing—meant that any reaction more complicated than “OMG OMG OMG” was pretty much out.

Still, if you had been doing an office Oscar pool last year and had bet on Moonlight winning solely because it made way less money than La La Land … your instincts would have been correct.

To celebrate the 2018 Oscars, we decided to find out whether box office performance and a Best Picture win were linked. We took all the films that were nominated for Best Picture over the last 20 years (starting with the 1998 Oscars) and we looked at how the winners stacked up in terms of box office performance.

What we found was pretty fascinating.

Plus, as we head into the Academy Awards this weekend without any clear frontrunner, these financial tea leaves might help you pick yourself a Best Picture winner.


We examined 20 years of Best Picture box office data.

In the tables below, we’ve listed out all the Oscar winners and nominees for Best Picture over the last 20 years. Using data from Box Office Mojo, we looked out how much each winner and nominee earned at the domestic box office, and we ranked where each winner’s box office haul stacked up against the total Best Picture field.

Don’t feel like you have to sift through all the data yourself. That’s why we’re here. Feel free to skip past the tables and keep reading.

But if you do want to look for yourself, there is something important to keep in mind:

In 2009, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that they would be expanding the number of Best Picture nominees from five to 10. The decision was made after the critically-lauded and wildly successful Batman flick The Dark Knight failed to make the five-movie cut.

Two years later, the Academy tweaked the rule. They introduced a voting system that would allow anywhere between five and ten movies to be nominated. Since that change was made, every Best Picture field has included either eight or nine nominees.

With that out of the way, here’s your 20-year financial breakdown of the Best Picture winners and nominees…

(via Box Office Mojo)

2017

Best Picture WinnerMoonlight
Box Office Gross$27,854,932
Rank Among Nominees8th (out of 9)

 

Best Picture NomineesTotal Box Office
Hidden Figures$169,607,287
La La Land$151,101,803
Arrival$100,546,139
Hacksaw Ridge$67,209,615
Fences$57,682,904
Lion$51,738,905
Manchester by the Sea$47,695,371
Moonlight (2016)$27,854,932
Hell or High Water$27,007,844

 

2016

Best Picture WinnerSpotlight
Box Office Gross$45,055,776
Rank Among Nominees6th (out of 8)

 

Best Picture NomineesTotal Box Office
The Martian$228,433,663
The Revenant$183,637,894
Mad Max: Fury Road$153,636,354
Bridge of Spies$72,313,754
The Big Short$70,259,870
Spotlight$45,055,776
Brooklyn$38,322,743
Room$14,677,654

 

2015

Best Picture WinnerBirdman
Box Office Gross$42,340,598
Rank Among Nominees5th (out of 8)

 

Best Picture NomineesTotal Box Office
American Sniper$350,126,372
The Imitation Game$91,125,683
The Grand Budapest Hotel$59,301,324
Selma$52,076,908
Birdman$42,340,598
The Theory of Everything$35,893,537
Boyhood$25,352,281
Whiplash$13,092,000

 

2014

Best Picture Winner12 Years a Slave
Box Office Gross$27,854,932
Rank Among Nominees5th (out of 9)

 

Best Picture NomineesTotal Box Office
Gravity$274,092,705
American Hustle$150,117,807
The Wolf of Wall Street$116,900,694
Captain Phillips$107,100,855
12 Years a Slave$56,671,993
Philomena$37,709,979
Dallas Buyers Club$27,298,285
Her (2013)$25,568,251
Nebraska$17,654,912

 

2013

Best Picture WinnerArgo
Box Office Gross$136,025,503
Rank Among Nominees4th (out of 9)

 

Best Picture NomineesTotal Box Office
Lincoln$182,207,973
Django Unchained$162,805,434
Les Miserables (2012)$148,809,770
Argo$136,025,503
Silver Linings Playbook$132,092,958
Life of Pi$124,987,023
Zero Dark Thirty$95,720,716
Beasts of the Southern Wild$12,795,746
Amour$6,739,492

 

2012

Best Picture WinnerThe Artist
Box Office Gross$44,671,682
Rank Among Nominees7th (out of 9)

 

Best Picture NomineesTotal Box Office
The Help$169,708,112
The Descendants$82,584,160
War Horse$79,884,879
Moneyball$75,605,492
Hugo$73,864,507
Midnight in Paris$56,817,045
The Artist$44,671,682
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close$31,847,881
The Tree of Life$13,303,319

 

2011

Best Picture WinnerThe King’s Speech
Box Office Gross$135,453,143
Rank Among Nominees4th (out of 10)

 

Best Picture NomineesTotal Box Office
Toy Story 3$415,004,880
Inception$292,576,195
True Grit$171,243,005
The King’s Speech$135,453,143
Black Swan$106,954,678
The Social Network$96,962,694
The Fighter$93,617,009
The Kids Are All Right$20,811,365
127 Hours$18,335,230
Winter’s Bone$6,531,503

 

2010

Best Picture WinnerThe Hurt Locker
Box Office Gross$17,017,811
Rank Among Nominees8th (out of 10)

 

Best Picture NomineesTotal Box Office
Avatar$749,766,139
Up$293,004,164
The Blind Side$255,959,475
Inglourious Basterds$120,540,719
District 9$115,646,235
Up in the Air$83,823,381
Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire$47,566,524
The Hurt Locker$17,017,811
An Education$12,574,914
A Serious Man$9,228,768

 

2009

Best Picture WinnerSlumdog Millionaire
Box Office Gross$141,319,92
Rank Among Nominees1st (out of 5)

 

Best Picture NomineesTotal Box Office
Slumdog Millionaire$141,319,928
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button$127,509,326
The Reader$34,194,407
Milk$31,841,299
Frost/Nixon$18,622,031

 

2008

Best Picture WinnerNo Country for Old Men
Box Office Gross$74,283,625
Rank Among Nominees2nd (out of 5)

 

Best Picture NomineesTotal Box Office
Juno$143,495,265
No Country for Old Men$74,283,625
Atonement$50,927,067
Michael Clayton$49,033,882
There Will Be Blood$40,222,514

 

2007

Best Picture WinnerThe Departed
Box Office Gross$132,384,315
Rank Among Nominees1st (out of 5)

 

Best Picture NomineesTotal Box Office
The Departed$132,384,315
Little Miss Sunshine$59,891,098
The Queen$56,441,711
Babel$34,302,837
Letters from Iwo Jima$13,756,082

 

2006

Best Picture WinnerCrash
Box Office Gross$54,580,300
Rank Among Nominees2nd (out of 5)

 

Best Picture NomineesTotal Box Office
Brokeback Mountain$83,043,761
Crash$54,580,300
Munich$47,403,685
Good Night, and Good Luck.$31,558,003
Capote$28,750,530

 

2005

Best Picture WinnerMillion Dollar Baby
Box Office Gross$100,492,203
Rank Among Nominees2nd (out of 5)

 

Best Picture NomineesTotal Box Office
The Aviator$102,610,330
Million Dollar Baby$100,492,203
Ray$75,331,600
Sideways$71,503,593
Finding Neverland$51,680,613

 

2004

Best Picture WinnerThe Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Box Office Gross$377,027,325
Rank Among Nominees1st (out of 5)

 

Best Picture NomineesTotal Box Office
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King$377,027,325
Seabiscuit$120,277,854
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World$93,927,920
Mystic River$90,135,191
Lost in Translation$44,585,453

 

2003

Best Picture WinnerChicago
Box Office Gross$170,687,518
Rank Among Nominees2nd (out of 5)

 

Best Picture NomineesTotal Box Office
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers$339,789,881
Chicago$170,687,518
Gangs of New York$77,812,000
The Hours$41,675,994
The Pianist$32,572,577

 

2002

Best Picture WinnerA Beautiful Mind
Box Office Gross$170,742,341
Rank Among Nominees2nd (out of 5)

 

Best Picture NomineesTotal Box Office
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring$313,364,114
A Beautiful Mind$170,742,341
Moulin Rouge!$57,386,607
Gosford Park$41,308,615
In the Bedroom$35,930,604

 

2001

Best Picture WinnerGladiator
Box Office Gross$187,705,427
Rank Among Nominees1st (out of 5)

 

Best Picture NomineesTotal Box Office
Gladiator$187,705,427
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon$128,078,872
Erin Brockovich$125,595,205
Traffic$124,115,725
Chocolat$71,509,363

 

2000

Best Picture WinnerAmerican Beauty
Box Office Gross$130,096,601
Rank Among Nominees3rd (out of 5)

 

Best Picture NomineesTotal Box Office
The Sixth Sense$293,506,292
The Green Mile$136,801,374
American Beauty$130,096,601
The Cider House Rules$57,545,092
The Insider$29,089,912

 

1999

Best Picture WinnerShakespeare in Love
Box Office Gross$100,317,794
Rank Among Nominees2nd (out of 5)

 

Best Picture NomineesTotal Box Office
Saving Private Ryan$216,540,909
Shakespeare in Love$100,317,794
Life Is Beautiful$57,247,384
The Thin Red Line$36,400,491
Elizabeth$30,082,699

 

1998

Best Picture WinnerTitanic
Box Office Gross$600,788,188
Rank Among Nominees1st (out of 5)

 

Best Picture NomineesTotal Box Office
Titanic$600,788,188
As Good as It Gets$148,478,011
Good Will Hunting$138,433,435
L.A. Confidential$64,616,940
The Full Monty$45,950,122

 

That’s a lot of movies, right? Well, we crunched the numbers, and here’s what we found …

Taking the Best Picture field from 5 to 10 nominees changed everything.

  • From 1998 to 2009, when the Best Picture field was only five nominees, the winner was almost always either the highest-grossing or the second-highest grossing nominee. The only year this didn’t happen was 2003, when American Beauty beat out The Green Mile and The Sixth Sense, both of which hard larger box office hauls. (American Beauty still grossed over $130 million because, well, we don’t really know. That movie is bad.)
  • Since the Best Picture slate expanded in 2009, no top-grossing film has won Best Picture. The same goes for second-place and third. The there have been only two winners—out of a possible eight—that sat in the top half of their respective fields. Those films were The King’s Speech in 2011 and Argo in 2013, both of which placed fourth.
  • 12 Years a Slave, which won in 2014, presents a unique case. It wasn’t in the top half of the field but it wasn’t in the bottom half either. As the fifth highest-grossing film out of nine total nominees, it sat in the dead center of the pack.
  • The five winners who finished in the bottom half the pack were:
    • Moonlight, which finished eighth out of nine nominees.
    • Spotlight, which finished sixth out of eight nominees.
    • Birdman, which finished fifth out of eight nominees.
    • The Artist, which finished seventh out of nine nominees.
    • The Hurt Locker, which finished eighth out of 10 nominees.
  • No movie that’s won Best Picture has been the lowest-grossing nominee. The closest was Moonlight, which was not only second-last with only $27,854,932 at the box office, but it only beat out the last-place finisher, Hell or High Water, by a little over $800,000.
  • If you look back over the past five years, you can see a steady decline in how well the Best Picture winners have performed against the rest of the field. Beginning with Argo in 2013, which finished fourth out of nine, the Best Picture winners then finished:
    • fifth of out nine (12 Years a Slave, 2014)
    • fifth out of eight (Birdman, 2015)
    • sixth out of eight (Spotlight, 2016)
    • eighth out of nine (Moonlight, 2016).
  • Movies that win Best Picture now make a lot less money (and are seen by a lot fewer people) than the movies that used win. From 1998 to 2009, the average Best Picture winner grossed $186,702,130. Since the slate was expanded in 2009, the average Best Picture winner grosses $63,136,430. That’s less than half what they made before!

When in doubt: You can always blame superheroes.

That last finding probably has a lot more to do with Hollywood at large than the way the Academy votes. In the past decade, studios have shifted away from making the kinds of prestigious mid-tier movies for adults that could gross between 150 and 200 million and also win a bunch of Oscars.

Nowadays, studios mostly make huge tentpole action movies—most of them based off of comic books—that need to gross over 300 million in the U.S. just to be successful. The studios then they bankroll a bunch of small, indie-type movies that aren’t expected to make a bunch of money and are basically designed in a lab to win awards.

This change in the movie industry has led to an Academy Awards landscape where, despite the expanded slate of Best Picture nominees, the only movies that have a real shot at winning are the kinds of films that most Americans have never seen—or sometimes even heard of!

There are some signs that this is changing. For one, The Academy is starting to look at comic book movies as the kinds of films that might be worthy of a Best Picture nomination. It helps that studios are figuring this out too, and are starting to make some comic book movies that have the Oscars in mind.

This year, the X-men film Logan is nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. It’s the first superhero movie to ever have been nominated for such a prestigious award! It’s also a sign that the Oscars could be warming up to the kind of superhero story that, lest we forget, was the reason they moved to 10 nominees in the first place!

And luckily, the 2019 awards will have the perfect test case in Black Panther, a movie that has critical acclaim, an ever-expanding pile of box office cash, and a complete hold on the broader cultural conversation.

So what about the 2018 Best Picture award?

Alright. Let’s get our magic eight balls out and start prognosticating. Here are the nominees and their box office totals:

NomineeBox Office
Dunkirk$188,045,546
Get Out$176,040,665
The Post$79,004,609
The Shape of Water$55,516,822
Darkest Hour$54,550,507
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri$50,275,720
Lady Bird$47,360,177
Phantom Thread$19,091,409
Call Me by Your Name$15,764,116

Based on previous awards, total nominations, and overall buzz, the top four contenders are generally assumed to be:

  • Get Out
  • The Shape of Water
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
  • Lady Bird

Judging by the box office totals of previous winners, we can pretty safely eliminate Get Out. Apparently, that movie’s just made too much dang money for the Academy to take it seriously.

This leaves us with The Shape of Water; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; and Lady Bird. Lady Bird grossed the lowest amount, at $47 million, with Three Billboards earning $50 million and The Shape of Water earning $55 million. Out of nine nominated films, The Shape of Water placed fourth, Three Billboards placed sixth, and Lady Bird placed seventh.

While The Shape of Water has the most nominations (not to mention a number of previous wins), winning Best Picture would make it only the third winner since 2009 to gross in the top of half of the nominees. We’re going to say that it won’t make that kind of history. So it’s out.

This leaves us with Lady Bird and Three Billboards. The general trend would point to Lady Bird as it is the lower-grossing of the two, but the difference between the third-lowest grossing film and the fourth is pretty negligible.

And so, using our gut reaction as a tiebreaker, we’re going to predict that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri will win Best Picture at the 2018 Academy Awards. Come at us, Twitter!

Actually, before we go, there are a few caveats with this pick that we need to express:

  • Over the past couple years, the Academy has been making a much-needed push to make their voting body younger and more diverse by adding new members. This might have had an effect on Moonlight beating La La Land last year, and it could come into play in this year’s race too. If these new members really tip the scales, then Get Out and Lady Bird will probably stand to benefit.
  • If you were to ask us who we think should win, then our answer is easy: Get Out should win Best Picture. Not only was it our favorite movie that we saw this year, but we think that it would be good for the Academy to start honoring movies that had some effect on the larger culture—not just on Twitter. We’d like box office grosses above $100 million to become a feature, not a bug. We’d also be fine with Lady Bird winning cuz Lady Bird was dope.
  • If Darkest Hour wins, we’ll riot. Maybe meet up at barricades?

Random observations…

  • The highest-grossing nominee of the past 20 years was Avatar, directed by James Cameron. The second highest-grossing nominee of the past 20 years was Titanic, also directed by James Cameron.
  • From 2002 through 2004, the three highest-grossing nominees were the three Lord of the Rings movies. The third movie, Return of the King, won Best Picture.
  • Moonlight was not the lowest-grossing Best Picture winner of the past 20 years. That honor goes to The Hurt Locker, which grossed $17 million, over ten million less than Moonlight.
  • The box office floor for a Best Picture nomination appears to be six million. The two lowest-earning nominees were Winter’s Bone in 2011, which earned $6,531,503, and Amour in 2013, which earned $6,739,492.
  • There was no year prior to 2009 where all five nominees grossed over $100 million. The closest was 2001 when four nominees (Gladiator; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Erin Brockovich; and Traffic) all crossed the $100 million mark. The only nominee that didn’t was Chocolat, which grossed $71 million—more than each of the last four Best Picture winners.
  • In both 2010 and 2010, the two years that had a mandatory field of 10 nominees, there were five nominees that grossed over $100 million. In 2013, with nine nominees, there were six.
  • In regards to 2013: Weirdly, with a total of six nominees grossing over $100 million, the highest-grossing of them all was Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, a movie where Daniel-Day Lewis wandered around in a shawl and had a puffy and winded James Spader run around to do his bidding.
  • 2005 winner Million Dollar Baby is a very unique case when it comes to box office performance. While it grossed over $100 million in total and was the second-highest grossing nominee (behind Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator), it only made $8.5 million of that total before it was nominated. Million Dollar Baby made $53 million during the nomination period and an additional $35 million after it won.
  • The Revenant, a Best Picture Nominee in 2016, somehow grossed over $180 million. To anyone who saw The Revenant, that box office number is wiiiiiiild. How did Leonardo DiCaprio grunting in the woods for two hours make that much money?!
  • We all remember when Crash famously upset Brokeback Mountain at the 2006 Oscars, because it was awful in every conceivable way. But did you know that Brokeback Mountain actually grossed more than Crash? By almost $30 million? Cuz we sure didn’t. It doesn’t make up for losing, but at least it’s something.
  • Remember when The Artist won Best Picture in 2012? We don’t have any interesting financial facts about that. We just wanted to say: that movie sucked.

If you liked this piece, check out some of our other deep dives into the financial side of pop culture:

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