Oscar Best Picture Race Dominated by Box Office Winners

This year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ ill-fated popular film Oscar category could have just as easily been dubbed “best picture.”

That’s because the crop of movies vying to take home the top prize represents the highest-grossing group of best picture nominees in nearly a decade. The eight films in the category have earned a combined $1.3 billion at the domestic box office — a figure that could continue to grow as buzz builds leading up to the awards show on Feb. 24. 

With roughly a week to go before the ceremony, the year’s total box office haul is the group’s biggest since 2010, when “Toy Story 3,” “Inception” and “True Grit” helped propel ticket sales above $1.35 billion. It also marks the first year since 2012 that best picture nominees crossed $1 billion in ticket sales. In short, it’s been a while since there has been this much overlap between box office hits and Oscar’s shortlist.

Assessing the popularity of best picture nominees can be a tricky business. Since the category expanded from five to a possible 10 in 2009, the number of films in contention each year has varied. That’s where average gross comes in as an important benchmark. This year’s contenders have averaged $163 million in ticket sales, the highest since 2009’s pick of titles reached a median of $170 million in receipts.

The box office success of this year’s nominees likely has executives at ABC, the network responsible for airing the Academy Awards, breathing a sigh of relief. The telecast has struggled with ratings in recent years, so producers are hoping audiences will be more inclined to tune in to an awards show that recognizes movies they’ve actually seen.

Black Panther,” which hit the zeitgeist with its more inclusive approach to the superhero genre, topping the domestic box office at $700 million, could deliver the Oscarcast its biggest ratings boost. Adding populist films to indie fare was the goal when the Oscars expanded the number of best picture slots. The impetus for the change: voters’ snub of “The Dark Knight” in the category. It took a decade, but with “Black Panther,” the Academy has finally recognized a comic-book movie as one of the year’s best. It’s nominated for seven awards, including best picture. But it’s not the only commercial success on the prowl for the top prize. “Bohemian Rhapsody” ($211 million and counting; five nominations) and “A Star Is Born” ($209 million so far; eight noms) are also among the honorees.

Just as the presence of popular films may boost ratings for the broadcast, many contenders have profited handsomely at the box office from their nominations. After “The Favourite” received an Oscar-leading 10 nods (tied with “Roma”), its weekly earnings rose 212%. “Green Book” had the most to gain from the awards. The comedic drama saw revenues stall at the beginning of its theatrical run, but help arrived in the form of a best picture nom, which provided a 154% box office boost the week following the announcement. The movie has subsequently continued to out-earn its early returns. 

Not all best picture nominees have gotten a box office bump, however. “A Star Is Born” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which both hit theaters in early fall, had largely wrapped up their theatrical runs before they received Oscar love. “BlacKkKlansman,” released in August, has been out of theaters for months.

“For a lot of these films, there wasn’t a lot of wiggle room,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “Part of that is because the biggest films have already been played out. Movies like ‘A Star Is Born’ and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ made as much as they could.”

The nominees’ near-record box office comes with an important asterisk. There might be eight films up for best picture, but combined grosses account for only seven films. That’s because Netflix has refused to divulge numbers for “Roma,” the streaming company’s first movie to score a best picture nod. The black-and-white foreign language film directed by Alfonso Cuarón (also nominated for director, cinematography and original screenplay) probably wouldn’t have set records for ticket sales, but it is impossible to assess its popularity with Netflix playing coy.

From a television ratings standpoint, there couldn’t be a better time to honor commercially successful movies. With Kevin Hart stepping down as emcee in the wake of a controversy involving past homophobic remarks, this year’s ceremony has been left without a host. Instead of having an A-list comedian on posters and promos, the Academy is running spots that emphasize the films in the race, including the tasty lineup of blockbusters. The hope is that moviegoers across the globe will be more inclined to turn on the TV to see if “Black Panther” can score an upset best picture win or to watch a teary Lady Gaga thank Bradley Cooper from the stage.

Over the past few years, the Oscars have been accused of being out of touch with the tastes of the general public. For the first time in a while, the Academy lineup doesn’t look virtually identical to that of the Independent Spirit Awards. Recently, best picture winners have been smaller dramas that were more loved than seen. “Moonlight” ($28 million at the domestic box office) was one of the lowest-grossing Oscar champs of all time; “The Shape of Water” ($64 million) and “Spotlight” ($45 million) weren’t exactly smash hits either. “Argo” ($136 million) is the only winner since 2011 that cracked $100 million at the domestic box office. That doesn’t necessarily correlate with the decline in TV ratings, but it’s a track record that suggests the show appeals to only the most hardened cinephiles.

“These weren’t movies that a broad television audience was chomping at the bit to see. It was hardly compelling television,” said Chris Aronson, Fox’s head of domestic distribution. “I don’t know if any wrongs are going to be righted, but with films like ‘Black Panther’ and ‘BlacKkKlansman,’ you have movies that people are interested in seeing and have seen.”

There’s at least one reason for the change. The motion picture Academy, whose members select the year’s best in cinema, is the biggest and most inclusive it’s ever been. In attempts to diversify its ranks, the Academy added 928 members this year, resulting in a group that’s younger and filled with more women and people of color.

“The Academy is now broader, more populous and more inclusive of differing viewpoints,” said Jim Orr, Universal Pictures’ president of domestic distribution. “That has made it more commercial by default.” 

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