With a little help from inflation and a lot of help from eager moviegoers, 2012 broke many records at the box office. For the first time, each of the ten highest-grossing films earned over $600 million. But don’t look for The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, or Skyfall (2012’s three billion-dollar hits) to take home the top prize at the 85th Academy Awards. As a matter of fact, none of the top ten earners received a Best Picture nomination.
This is the eighth time that this occurred, along with 1984, 2004-2008, and 2011. But it hasn’t always been this way: The Academy’s and the box office’s top choices used to match up quite frequently. In 1949, 1950, 1953, and 1962, all Best Picture nominees made the top ten. The most top-ten grossing movies to receive a Best Picture nomination in one year was seven in 1934.
The Best Picture winner made the top ten money-making list 14 years in a row between 1934 and 1947, the longest streak in history. There are even two pairs of back-to-back Best Picture winners which were also the highest-grossing film of the year: You Can’t Take It with You (1938) and Gone with the Wind (1939), along with My Fair Lady (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965).
But there has been a significant decline in money-makers being nominated for and winning the Academy’s top prize. Of the 18 movies that have won Best Picture and have also been the highest-grossing film of the year, the most recent was Lord of the Rings: Return of the King in 2003. However, 16 of those 18 were before 1980, with Titanic (1997) the only other post-1980 film to receive both distinctions.
Similarly, 59 of the 84 Best Picture winners made the top ten, though none since Lord of the Rings. Since 2004, only four top-ten grossing hits have been nominated: Avatar (2009), Up (2009), Inception (2010), and Toy Story 3 (2010).
The following graph has one data point for every year of the Oscars, with the height representing the number of Best Picture-nominated top-ten films.
The line of best fit trends downward with a slope of -0.04. Put another way, for every 25 years, the expected number of overlaps between the top-ten list and the Best Picture nominee list falls by one. Of course, that trend can’t go on much longer, since the expected value is already below one, compared to its initial position just above four in the late 1920s.
What is the explanation for this change? One possibility is that, in the 21st century, franchises and sequels tend to do very well at the box office but not nearly as well with Academy voters. The main exception is Lord of the Rings, which saw all three of its films receive Oscar recognition.
All entries in the list of 2012 top-ten grossers are part of a franchise, which was also true in 2011. Compare this to 1934, the only year that all of the top five grossing movies were nominated for Best Picture. Only one of those five, The Thin Man, spawned sequels. It’s a similar story in 1938 and 1970, the only other two years when all of the top four hits received nominations.
Another possibility is that the Academy just doesn’t go for high-budget action movies with the same frequency as epic historical dramas, while the average viewer’s preferences in recent decades are precisely the opposite. While others might argue that so-called “popcorn viewers” nowadays will watch anything, or on the flip side, that Oscar voters are becoming too snobby and out-of-touch, either of these assertions would be very difficult to prove mathematically.
Some more trivia: The Best Picture winner has appeared in every position of the top ten grossers. As a matter of fact, that was already accomplished by 1950, when All About Eve finished seventh, the final unfilled spot. Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) happens to be the only Best Picture to finish in eighth, while all other positions in the top ten have been occupied by at least three Best Pictures.
Interestingly, part of the reason that the Academy expanded the Best Picture nominations in 2009 was to try to include more popular films among the artsy critical darlings. It’s too early in this experiment to see if it will work in the long run, but perhaps that best fit curve will start sloping upward again in the near future.