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A Best Picture Oscar Campaign Costs Millions, But Gains the Winner Almost Nothing at the Box Office

Winning the Oscar for Best Picture is the industry's highest honor, but it doesn't do much for the box office.

“The Post”

Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Every year, Hollywood spends millions chasing little gold men. The Academy Award is the film industry’s highest honor — unless you’re the box office, in which case it’s a trivial pursuit. IndieWire surveyed 89 years of Best Picture winners and nominees, and discovered that in the last two decades, the top-grossing domestic film corresponded with the Best Picture winner exactly once, with “The Lord of the Rings” in 2003. (Before that, odds were substantially better; it happened more than 25% of the time.)

Similarly, until recently almost every Best Picture winner was one of the year’s top 20 domestic grossers; in the last seven years, only one winner can claim that bragging right: 2011 Best Picture winner “The King’s Speech,” which earned $135 million and a No. 18 slot. Other placements range from No. 22 (2013 winner “Argo,” $136 million) to No. 92 (2017 winner “Moonlight,” $27.5 million).

This year has only a slim shot of improving those odds. Among the nine 2018 Best Picture nominees, the top-grossing films are “Dunkirk” ($188 million, No. 14) and “Get Out” ($174 million, No. 15). Next on that list is “The Post”; at $73 million, it’s No. 43.

The Academy has become increasingly alienated from public tastes since at least the late 1970s. Few genre films have been nominated outside the technical categories; among the exceptions are “Avatar” and the “Lord of the Rings” franchise. Despite Pixar’s reputation, only three animated films have been nominated for Best Picture. This reflects the shift in public tastes for sequels and franchises, but the Academy still prefers standalone films.

And once upon a time, the public had a much bigger appetite for bespoke Best Picture winners. “Tom Jones” was the No. 4 film of 1963, while “Midnight Cowboy” was No. 9 in 1969. “Annie Hall” was No. 10 in 1977, and “Chariots of Fire” No. 7 of 1981. “Platoon,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” and “Schindler’s List” were among the 10 biggest of their years.

This shift became distinct at the 2010 Academy Awards, after “The Dark Knight” got stellar reviews and was the year’s top film, but still didn’t land a nomination. That also was the first year the Academy expanded the number of Best Picture nominees, expecting that it would lead to more popular films making the list. In some cases, it has. “Toy Story 3,” “The Help,” “The Martian,” and “Hidden Figures” are among top-20 titles that might have been passed over. However, most of the titles benefiting seem to be smaller films.

“Moonlight”

Almost any Oscar-nominated movie in the 21st century has lost the opportunity to boost its post-awards box office. Streaming starts as early as 75 days after release (“Darkest Hour” just did that), and many top nominees are available for home viewing by Oscar night. A surprise winner like last year’s “Moonlight” might have yielded another $15 million-$20 million for A24 if it still had theatrical exclusivity; that’s considerable, given a theatrical gross that tapped out a $28 million. (Streaming provides a higher percentage return to distributors, but at a much lower price point.)

Here’s how this year’s Best Picture nominees currently rank among 2017 domestic releases:

14. Dunkirk ($188 million)

15. Get Out ($174 million)

43. The Post ($73 million)

51. Darkest Hour ($51 million)

54. The Shape of Water ($50 million)

58. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri ($45 million)

59. Lady Bird ($45 million)

113. Phantom Thread ($16 million)

116. Call Me by Your Name ($14 million)

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