They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don’t They?

Box Office and the Oscars: Does The Public Matter?

By J. Don Birnam

February 4, 2015

Exactly how much HGH did you take?

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American Sniper’s startlingly successful box office run continues to dominate the discussion in Hollywood in the middle of the awards season. The inevitable question, of course, is whether the climbing totals (American Sniper could well become the highest grossing movie released in 2014) will improve its seemingly muted chances at Best Picture. As I have a written elsewhere, I think the answer is no.

But this is, after all, a box office site. So American Sniper’s success at the box office and probable defeat on February 22nd raises another question: what is the correlation between box office success and Academy Award success? I don’t mean the reverse question: we all know that Oscar nominations and wins lead to increased box office totals. Although the amount of that bump has been declining (and is certainly worth well under the amount of money invested in the Oscar campaigns), it has still translated into increased rentals and DVD sales.

Here, the focus is on the reverse effect: does box office success translate into Oscar glory? We know anecdotally when Avatar became the highest-grossing movie of all time and lost Best Picture to The Hurt Locker, the lowest grossing winner since the Last Emperor, that the answer is no. But let’s quantify it a bit, shall we?


This isn’t an exact scientific study, and many measures can be used to prove (and maybe disprove?) the point. Today, I’m going to focus on a small set of (arbitrarily selected) numbers, to see what results yield. I will look at yearly box office rank of the Best Picture winner, the average rank of the nominees, and the number of nominees that cracked the top ten highest grossing movies of the year.

The analysis is hindered a bit by the fact that most box office data is incomplete before 1980, and it was really in the 1970s when film historians say there was a very close correlation between Oscar and box office. Thus, the change in the correlation, if any is discovered, may seem smaller when we move only from the 1980s until today. Nevertheless, here is what I found.

*In these years, if the odd-ball nominee that ranked below the top 50 is removed, the average ranking movies up to 5.4, 6.5, 15.6, 12.5, 13.5, and 22 respectively.

^In these years, the expanded Best Picture list meant more chances to get movies in the top 10—but it didn't seem to do much for a while.

These numbers don’t lie, friends. Here are some averages.

So the trends should be obvious. In the 1980s and even the 1990s, the Best Picture winner could be, on average, expected to be among the top 10. And the Best Picture nominees were altogether even among the top 25 or 30, even when accounting for nominees that skew the numbers way down - of which there was inevitably one or two every year. Essentially, the public and the Academy had similar tastes, except for one artsy movie here or there.

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