• Carson Cook

The Highest-Grossing Oscars

Paramount Pictures

Yesterday on the site, we discussed two narratives about the Oscars and their waning importance/relevance: (1) that they don’t reward the best movies, and (2) that they don’t reward movies that the general public has seen. We pulled the data and took a look at the former claim yesterday, and today we turn to the second narrative — have the Oscars lost their way when it comes to the box office?

Obviously box office isn’t the end-all be-all, especially in the age of streaming, but it certainly still matters: theatres remain the lifeblood of cinema and the economic ravages of the pandemic mean that well-attended movies may be even more important going forward if we want to keep both the arthouses and the multiplexes alive.

Similarly to the methodology yesterday, I looked at films that won the “Big 8” categories — Best Picture, Best Director, the four acting awards, and the two screenplay awards — at each Oscar ceremony. The pool is more limited this time around though: the availability of good, inflation-adjusted box office data means we only charted awards history back to film year (not ceremony year) 1995. For each winner in the top eight categories between 1995 and 2019, I used The Numbers to chart their respective film’s total domestic box office gross, adjusted for inflation, from its initial run (e.g., the 2012 re-release of Titanic was filtered out — spoiler alert, that didn’t make much of a difference).

A quick aside: Netflix’s aversion to releasing box office data meant I had to seek out alternative estimates for Roma and Marriage Story. While I don’t think that more accurate theatre-going metrics would change the results much, these films do call into question, more so than any other, how much box office correlates with viewership and whether the type of analysis we’re doing here will become increasingly irrelevant for future Oscar ceremonies.

Once I had the gross for each winner, I averaged the dollar amounts to obtain the average box office performance for each film year at the Oscars (as mentioned yesterday, this means a film has more weight for winning multiple top awards).

The major outlier here is of course 1997, the year of Titanic (which grossed over $1 billion in inflation-adjusted terms), but despite the various peaks driven by likes of Return of the King and The Dark Knight, the chart above seems to indicate a downward trend: as the annual box office is increasingly dominated by franchise-centric blockbusters, we’re spending less of our theatre time on the eventual Oscar winners. Will the Oscars start nominating more hits? Or are they destined to become even more niche in the eyes of the public? Only time will tell.

As with yesterday’s data, the full rankings are included in the table below for your perusal — we’d love to hear your thoughts!