In kudos, is it money that matters?

Trend of B.O. winners being best pix making comeback

In spring 1978, “Star Wars” came to the 50th annual Academy Awards loaded with 10 nominations and domestic receipts of $221 million. But George Lucas’s film didn’t satisfy the critical palates of Academy voters as much as Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall,” which had totaled a more earthbound $38 million.

In 1982, Steven Spielberg’s “E.T. the ExtraTerrestrial,” a movie that sent 120 million moviegoers sniffling home, was humbled by Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi” for best picture, an epic that only reached 14 million admissions.

Oscar voters have a reputation for “punishing” films that did boffo box office. But the tide may be turning.

As DreamWorks distrib topper Mark Christiansen points out, “Out of the past 10 best picture winners, nine were the highest or second-highest grossing among the nominees by Oscar night. Once a film is nominated, an argument can be made for a correlation between a picture’s box office and a best picture win.”

Of course, Oscar voters are more populist than critics’ groups, which often show a preference for small, offbeat films. All the pics that have taken home the best pic prize can be classified as hits at the box office. But Academy Award voters tend to go in cycles. Box office behemoths often ruled the roost (“Gone With the Wind,” “Ben-Hur,” “The Sound of Music,” etc.) in past decades. But such films seem to have fallen out of fashion in the late 1970s, with pics like “Chariots of Fire” and “Amadeus” taking home the prize, meaning popcorn blockbusters were also-rans.

And of the 33 films that grossed over $200 million at the domestic box office, just nine have been nominated for best picture and only two have actually taken the top trophy home (“Forrest Gump” and “Titanic”). (These totals don’t count the films released in 2001.)

The Robert Zemeckis-directed “Gump” started a revival of the trend in which audience favorites and critics’ faves have moved closer together as Oscar saluted such crowd-pleasers like last year’s “Gladiator” or 1997’s “Titanic.”

Here’s further proof on how boffo pics have been dominating recent best picture races:

  • Last year, four of the five best picture nominees topped $100 million by Oscar night. Prior to that, only 1997 and 1999’s best pic nominees boasted three pics each with grosses over $100 million.

  • In the ’80s, only three best picture winners had topped $100 million by Oscar night. In contrast, from 1991 to 2001 (when $187 million earner “Gladiator” won), five best pic winners earned more than $100 million by the big night.

  • In the past 20 Oscarcasts, the lowest-grossing best pic nominee has yet to take home a trophy. It almost happened in 1988 when “The Last Emperor” swept all nine awards it was nominated for, including best film. But the Bernardo Bertolucci pic was the second lowest grossing film on Oscar night ($27 million); the fifth-place contender was John Boorman’s “Hope and Glory” ($10 million).

And if the Producers’ Guild Assn. noms for best pic are any indicator, there could be three Oscar nominees with grosses over $200 million: “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” and “Shrek.”

Despite all these positive signs, how do Warner Bros., DreamWorks and New Line – studios behind “Potter,” “Shrek” and “Rings,” respectively — avoid having its picture fall into the typical Oscar-blockbuster trap that “Sixth Sense” did two years ago?

For one thing, none is playing up its huge box office performance. Instead, “Lord of the Rings” and “Shrek” in particular are emphasizing their critical acclaim. “Rings” is noting its best pic win at the inaugural AFI Awards, and presence on many critics’ best-of lists, while “Shrek’s” ads, which have specifically noted the animated hit’s eligibility for best pic, point out the almost universally strong reviews. “Harry Potter,” which is not campaigning quite so avidly, is nonetheless playing up its broad appeal and impressive technical achievements.

All three might want to heed the advice of “Gump” producer Wendy Finerman: “Our Oscar campaign kept in line with the humble quality of Gump’s character. We made a conscious effort to be low key and true to the spirit of the film.”