Monday, March 08, 2010

Can a movie be too popular to win an Oscar?

I don't actively seek out Oscar news but it sort of beats you in the face around now. There aren't that many sports stories to put out there and people are searching for anything and everything to fill our over-saturated 24-hour-cycle news pipeline. So I got to hear a lot this weekend about how Avatar's popularity may hurt it in the Oscar hunt. I heard other Oscar-related musings, too, but those went in one ear and out the other. So I decided to do a little research and see if there is a bias against the highest grossing nominee.

I'm going back 20 years since I really don't want to bother going back further. There are 5 nominees in 19 of the 20 year and 10 nominees this year. So the odds of the highest grossing film winning are (19*.2+1*.1)/20 = 19.5% So we need 20*.195 = 3.9 (we'll just round to 4) Best Picture Winners to be the highest grossing nominee in those 20 years. Let's see how we do:

YearWinnerHighest Grossing
1990Dances with WolvesGhost
1991The Silence of the LambsBeauty and the Beast
1992UnforgivenA Few Good Men
1993Schindler's ListThe Fugitive
1994*Forrest GumpForrest Gump
1995BraveheartAppolo 13
1996The English PatientJerry Maguire
1998Shakespeare in LoveSaving Private Ryan
1999American BeautyThe Sixth Sense
2001A Beautiful MindThe Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
2002ChicagoThe Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
2003*The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the KingThe Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
2004*Million Dollar BabyMillion Dollar Baby
2005CrashBrokeback Mountain
2006*The DepartedThe Departed
2007No Country for Old MenJuno
2008*Slumdog MillionaireSlumdog Millionaire
2009The Hurt LockerAvatar

So we should've gotten 4 and ended up with 7. If anything, being the highest grossing nominee helps more than hurts your chances. Breaking down by decade doesn't change that. Even if you don't count 2003 and 2006 where they should've just folded up the tents and admitted that there just really wasn't a film good enough to be Best Picture, you still get more than enough examples to make the case that the highest grossing nominee has a distinct edge in winning. The Avatar and Saving Private Ryan losses are probably the biggest "upsets" I recall, but there's a clear trend showing that their losses have nothing to do with haughty Oscar voters looking down on the common folk. The voters just thought there were better movies out there.

EDIT: And for the record, those results surprised me. I thought I'd find a clear trend the other way.


Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

But the original version of Avatar did win, back in 1990.

Dante said...

If you really want to split hairs, the original version of Avatar won back in 1962. Peter O'Toole was a white messiah before Kevin Costner was even old enough to drive.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...


patsbrother said...

In 2008, Benjamin Button made more than $100 million before getting a best picture nomination, while Slumdog Millionaire had less than $45 (despite being released earlier). At the time the Academy Awards rolled around that year, Button had shy of $125 million whereas Slumdog had less than $100. Slumdog made a lot of money AFTER winning Best Picture.

The same happened in 2004. Million Dollar Baby was LAST before nominations came out with just shy of $8.5 million total, and was millions behind both The Aviator and Ray at the time it was declared Best Picture (and was just barely ahead of Sideways). Also, Million Dollar Baby's total gross was $100.5, whereas The Aviator ended up with $102.6, making it that year's victor.

So, really, it's a total of 6, not 7, that ENDED UP with the most money, and only 5 that had the most money prior to nominations / winning best picture.


However, for the 12 years prior...

1989 Driving Miss Daisy ended up with the most but, as of Oscar night, had less than Dead Poets Society;

1988 Rain Man walked away number 1.

1987, Winner The Last Emperor was fourth behind Fatal Attraction (seriously?), Moonstruck, and Broadcast News.

1986, Platoon walked away number 1.

1985, Out of Africa ended up with less money than the Color Purple and won Best Picture with less money than Witness.

1984, Amadeus was ahead a little when it won, then ahead some more.

1983, Terms of Endearment walked away with number 1.

1982, Ghandi was fifth until the nominations then it eeked up to...fourth. Behind ET, Tootsie, and the Verdict.

For movies before 1982, box office mojo does not break them down by gross pre-nomination, pre-award, and post-award. The following is just the ends.

1981, Chariots of Fire ended up third behind Raiders of the Lost Ark and On Golden Pond.

1980, Ordinary People was second to Coal Miner's Daughter.

1979, Kramer v. Kramer was number 1.

1978, The Deer Hunter was second to Heaven Can Wait(!).


So, that's 12/32 if you count it from the end total. 9 or 10/32 if you count it from the night of the awards. Either way, that's like a third.

So, what they should have said is, Academy voters don't like to vote for the most popular movie AS OFTEN as they used to.

Dante said...

It's still far more than the 20% needed to show that the highest grossing film at least gets a fair shake. You are right about the winner getting a boost in sales, but there are other factors at play like release schedule. Sometimes an Oscar nominee hasn't finished its first wide-spread theatrical run by the time of the awards show. (If I remember right, Slumdog Millionaire and Crash were examples of nominees still in the midst of their first wide release at the time the Oscars aired.)