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While the pandemic didn’t help, viewership for the Oscars telecast, as well as the average box office returns of the films nominated for best picture, have been on a downward trend for years.
Six of the past seven years of the telecasts on ABC saw a smaller audience than the year before. As for the box office, only the Academy Awards anchored by Avatar (2010) and Black Panther (2019) averaged $170 million or more per film in the post-Lord of the Rings era (2002-04), a figure achieved nine times in the preceding 14 years.
Since 1986, there has been a strong positive correlation between viewership and box office. In the chart below, the years with higher box office averages tend to also have higher ratings, and recent years have seen a downturn in both nominee ticket sales and ceremony viewership.
This could be ascribed to a number of factors, but it is quite plausible, based on this data, that viewers are more likely to tune in to the Oscars when movies they saw in theaters are nominated for the top prize.
The below chart shows the box office hauls of every best picture nominee since the 1986 ceremony, with the winning films in blue and the other nominees in yellow. On average, the blue dots — including notable best picture winners like Forrest Gump and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King — sit about $36 million above where the yellow dots land, suggesting at least some preference for more popular films among the Academy membership.
That said, this conclusion comes with a couple of important caveats. One is that the data is skewed by the presence of gargantuan grosser Titanic. Two is that this is only a preference for more popular films within the list of nominated films, and in recent years those nominees have diverged more and more from the list of box office successes.
This story first appeared in the March 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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