Best picture may be the most coveted prize at the Oscars, but the visual effects nominees have better records at the B.O. — especially in the past 15 years.
The late 1980s saw f/x-nommed films hit a bit of slump at the B.O. for the first time since “Star Wars” blew audiences awareness of the category wide open in 1977. In 1985, 1987 and 1989, the average box office gross for best picture nominees exceeded that of the visual effects contenders. The three nommed f/x pics in 1989 — “Back to the Future Part II,” “The Abyss” and “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” — grossed an average of $60 million compared with an average of $69 million for the five picture nominees.
CGI technology was just around the corner at this point, and the popularity of computer graphics began to grow starting with 1992’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” Effects nominees’ average B.O. has outpaced that of the pic nominees every year since.
Most significant was 1994, when “Forrest Gump” won both picture and visual effects for its then-unprecedented, more subtle use of effects in a film that was not set in a distant galaxy or far-off fantasy land. The other nominees that year — comicbook comedy “The Mask” and James Cameron thriller “True Lies” — each outgrossed every other pic nominee.
There have been three true powerhouse years for effects nominees at the box office since then: 1997’s “Titanic,” the all-time B.O. record holder, raised the box office average of best pic noms, which included the likes of “The Full Monty” and “L.A. Confidential,” to a record $199 million. But the effects category, bolstered by “The Lost World: Jurassic Park’s” $229 million gross, averaged $294 million or 147% of the best-pic average.
The return of George Lucas’ “Star Wars” series in 1999 gave the f/x B.O. a huge boost, grossing $431 million on its own. Helped by “The Matrix’s” $171 million, the category averaged $247 million to the pic category’s $128 million, whose strongest entrant was “The Sixth Sense,” with $293 million, and whose weakest was “The Insider,” $28 million.
The true boffo year, however, was 2002. With the second installment of “The Lord of the Rings,” “Star Wars: Episode II” and “Spider-Man,” the effects noms racked up a record average of $347 million at the B.O. With only one of those films getting a pic nom, that category was flat in growth with a $131 million average from the likes of “Chicago,” “Gangs of New York,” “The Hours” and “The Pianist.”
Most of this comes with at most three nominees in the visual effects race. The only time the number of nominees between the two categories matched was in 1979, when the five f/x noms averaged $88 million to the five pics’ $51 million.