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When James Cameron’s Titanic — the top-grossing best picture winner of all time with $2.2 billion in worldwide ticket sales, including $600.8 million domestically — won the Academy Award for best picture in 1998, more than 55.3 million viewers tuned in to the Oscar telecast. Other box office hits vying for the honor included As Good as It Gets, which earned more than $148 million domestically, and Good Will Hunting, with $138.4 million.
A year later, Oscar ratings began a decades-long precipitous decline as smaller, adult-skewing fare from specialty distributors began dominating the best picture contest. In mid-2009 — the final straw was The Dark Knight being snubbed — Academy members were so concerned that then-president Sid Ganis expanded the category to as many as 10 films in hopes of including studio event pics that are actually being seen by tens of millions of moviegoers.
Did it work? Yes and no. The Hurt Locker — the lowest-grossing best picture winner in modern times with a domestic cume of just $17 million — beat Cameron’s Avatar in a historic upset in March 2010. (Avatar remains the top-grossing movie in history, earning north of $2.9 billion worldwide and $785.1 million domestically, including rereleases.) Other populist studio releases competing that year included The Blind Side, but Academy voters stuck to their indie inclinations.
For the first time in over 20 years of the nominee field being mostly dominated by smaller specialty or studio titles, this year’s best picture race could see the return of studio blockbusters with several billion-dollar nominees and, ideally, a huge spike in ratings. Paramount’s Top Gun: Maverick, which has grossed north of $1.4 billion globally, including a huge $760 million domestically, is considered a shoo-in for a top nom. Likewise, Ryan Coogler’s upcoming Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and Cameron’s long-awaited sequel Avatar: The Way of Water are tipped to compete.
If so, the combined grosses for the best picture nominees could reach unprecedented levels, in terms of both domestic and global ticket sales. The first Black Panther earned north of $700 million domestically and $1.4 billion globally, and both Wakanda Forever and The Way of Water are primed for box office domination. Additionally, A24’s indie sensation Everything Everywhere All at Once has already grossed north of $70 million in the U.S. and $100 million worldwide, while Warner Bros. awards contender Elvis has grossed more than $150 million domestically and $286 million globally.
“It’s the Academy Awards, not the box office awards. But when quality movies and blockbuster revenues intersect, it creates a perfect storm of a greater collective interest in the movies themselves while adding a layer of popular interest for the telecast itself,” says Comscore box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “The reasoning behind the expansion of the potential best picture nominees to 10 contenders was to broaden the appeal of the Oscars beyond just the esoteric and presumably increase the number of movie fans who have a vested interest in the presentation and outcome of the awards.”
Dergarabedian rightly notes that the 2019 best picture race was populated by a healthy mix of major studio blockbusters (Black Panther, A Star Is Born, Bohemian Rhapsody) and specialized films (The Favourite, Vice), among others (with Green Book the winner). “The eight contenders generated over $1 billion in domestic revenue, but that was more of an anomaly than a trend, with most years offering mostly sub-$100 million box office performers.”
There is more than enough evidence to suggest a correlation between Oscar telecast ratings and the box office performance of movies going after the top prize. Some 29.6 million viewers tuned in to the 2019 telecast — still not ideal, of course, but up from 26.5 million in 2018. Viewership fell again to 23.6 million in 2020 (when Parasite triumphed); during the COVID-19 pandemic, ratings plummeted to an all-time low after the collapse of theatrical attendance in 2020: 10.4 million viewers in 2021 (Nomadland won) and 16.6 million viewers last year (CODA).
Looking further back, the Oscars, which have long aired on ABC, took a big hit in 2008, falling from 40.2 million viewers the year before to 31.8 million. Specialty distributors dominated the category, save for Warner Bros.’ adult drama Michael Clayton. The other movies were No Country for Old Men — which won — There Will Be Blood, Juno and Atonement.
Perhaps more than anyone, Harvey Weinstein reshaped the Oscar game in realizing that top nominations were a great marketing tool. Miramax’s Shakespeare in Love beat Saving Private Ryan during the 1999 telecast in what was a huge upset. The former had earned $36.4 million domestically when it was nominated; it added another $64 million. Conversely, Saving Private Ryan was already an established earnings winner, having grossed $195 million by the time it was nominated (it would add another $21.2 million).
Collectively, the specialty distributors and their awards consultants began enticing Oscar voters to support movies that didn’t have the marketing and distribution might of a major Hollywood studio.
“Independent films were able to bask in the glow that an Academy Award nomination afforded smaller films and lesser-known filmmakers, and this is a wonderful benefit that should not be sidelined by a fixation with higher ratings through the nomination of blockbuster-style films,” says Dergarabedian. “Hopefully this year’s crop will strike a perfect balance between worthy films of large and small scale; that’s a win-win scenario for Oscar.”
Nov. 15, 9 a.m.: Updated with Elvis box office grosses.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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