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Box Office 2.0: Oscar By The Numbers

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire February 3, 2010 at 7:26AM

When the Academy expanded their best picture list from 5 to 10 earlier this year, one of their many reasonings seems quite clear: They wanted more populist films in the mix, which might translate into higher ratings for the Oscar telecast. Well, yesterday they received their wish. With the inclusion of James Cameron's "Avatar," Pete Docter's "Up," Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds," Neill Blomkamp's "District 9," and, in a bit of a surprise, John Lee Hancock's "The Blind Side," half of the best picture nominees were $100 million grossers, resulting in a whopping $1,515,425,645 (and counting) box office total for the ten films. In fact, of the top grossing best picture nominees of the past twenty years, 2009 has 3 of the top ten:
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When the Academy expanded their best picture list from 5 to 10 earlier this year, one of their many reasonings seems quite clear: They wanted more populist films in the mix, which might translate into higher ratings for the Oscar telecast. Well, yesterday they received their wish. With the inclusion of James Cameron's "Avatar," Pete Docter's "Up," Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds," Neill Blomkamp's "District 9," and, in a bit of a surprise, John Lee Hancock's "The Blind Side," half of the best picture nominees were $100 million grossers, resulting in a whopping $1,515,425,645 (and counting) box office total for the ten films. In fact, of the top grossing best picture nominees of the past twenty years, 2009 has 3 of the top ten:

The Top Grossing Best Picture Nominees of Since 1990*
1. Avatar | 2009 | $601,141,551
2. Titanic | 1997 | $600,788,188
3. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | 2003 | $377,027,325
4. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers | 2002 | $341,786,758
5. Forrest Gump | 1994 | $329,694,499
6. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring | 2001 | $314,776,170
7. The Sixth Sense | 1999 | $293,506,292
8. Up | 2009 | $293,004,164
9. The Blind Side | 2009 | $238,142,164
10. Ghost | 1990 | $217,631,306
*-not adjusted for inflation, grosses as of Tuesday, February 2, 2010.

But will this mean higher ratings? Obviously at this point it's hard to tell, but historically, the Oscars has pulled off huge ratings when box-office juggernauts are in the mix. More than 57.25 million viewers tuned to the telecast in 1998, the year "Avatar" director Cameron's "Titanic" won best picture. The day those nominations were announced, the best picture nominees had grossed a total of $578,814,463, averaging $115,762,893. This year, that average sits at a staggering $151,542,565. That's over $80 million more than last year's "Slumdog"-boosted $37,341,326 average.

On the flip side, the expanded best picture line up reached the $150 million-plus average despite three of the lowest grossing titles to be included in the category in the past twenty years. - Lone Scherfig's "An Education" ($8.8 million), Joel & Ethan Coen's "A Serious Man" ($9.3 million), and Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker," ($12.7 million). While "An Education" and "A Serious Man" should be able to add a few million to their totals, as things stand, these are the lowest grossing best picture nominees since 1990:

The Lowest Grossing Best Picture Nominees Since 1990*
1. An Education | 2009 | $8,795,228
2. A Serious Man | 2009 | $9,228,768
3. The Hurt Locker | 2009 | $12,671,105
4. Secrets and Lies | 1996 | $13,417,292
5. Letters From Iwo Jima | 2006 | $13,756,082
6. Frost/Nixon | 2008 | $18,622,031
7. Il Postino | 1995 | $21,848,932
8. The Remains of the Day | 1993 | $23,237,911
9. Quiz Show | 1994 | $24,822,619
10. The Shawshank Redemption | 1994 | $28,341,469
*-not adjusted for inflation, grosses as of Tuesday, February 2, 2010.

In the end - unless it gets a theatrical re-release - "The Hurt Locker" could end up the lowest grossing best picture nominee since 1987's "Hope & Glory" (which grossed $10,021,120). It's also - at this point - a slight favorite to actually win, which would be monumental in how low "Locker"'s box office count is. It would become the first best picture winner to gross under $20 million since 1968's "Oliver!," and, if adjusted for inflation, the lowest grossing winner of all-time.

Back in June, when the Academy made the announcement to expand the nominees, then AMPAS President Sid Ganis told indieWIRE that the decision was to "broaden the possibilities for this very important award...A film winning an Oscar for best picture is the greatest award that a film can get - that a piece of film art can get," he said. "Five nominations are good, but over the years, over the last number of years, it became apparent that there were more possibilites for the best picture nominations. To widen the net now would be appropriate and would work and would be good for the Oscars and good for the show and good for the art of film."

Economically, Ganis' hope has certainly been realized. With "The Hurt Locker" on one side, and "Avatar" on the other, it doesn't get any wider. That said, both of them would certainly have been nominated had there only been five nominees.

"Box Office 2.0" is a weekly column by indieWIRE Associate Editor Peter Knegt. Check out the previous editions:

Box Office 2.0: Recapping The Non-Competition Films of Sundance '09
Box Office 2.0: Recapping The Competition Films of Sundance '09
Box Office 2.0: Tracking The Awards Contenders
Box Office 2.0: The Biggest Stories of the 2009 Indie Box Office
Box Office 2.0: "Broken Embraces" and the Cannes '09 Crop
Box Office 2.0: What Happens To "Precious" Now?
Box Office 2.0: The Curious Case of "Orson Welles"
Box Office 2.0: Fall Winners and Losers
Box Office 2.0: Assessing 2009's Dox Office From "Capitalism" to "The Cove"
Box Office 2.0: Two Notable DIY Releases That Opened In "Precious"'s Shadow
Box Office 2.0: Snap Judgements & Great Expectations

This article is related to: Academy Awards





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