Oscar winners vs. box office hits

For roughly the past decade, very few Best Picture winners have done well financially, too. Can that change? Oscar frontrunners 'Gravity' and 'American Hustle' may provide the answer.

Summit Entertainment/AP
‘The Hurt Locker’

What does the Oscar for Best Picture mean to the average moviegoer? The answer recently: not too much.

Beginning in the 1980s, almost every Best Picture winner also grossed at least $100 million, according to But a new trend emerged in the early 2000s. Many of the Best Picture winners stumbled financially. One or two recent winners avoided this fate, but “The Hurt Locker” (2009) is currently the lowest-grossing Best Picture winner ever, followed closely by “Crash” (2005), “No Country for Old Men” (2007), and “The Artist” (2011). Today’s moviegoers are drawn toward big special effects and A-list actors, but those characteristics aren’t always found in the movies the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences likes. And with special effects topping out with each new superhero or fantasy blockbuster, it seems the gap between the spectacles of sight and sound that audiences love and the thought-provoking story lines that the academy prefers will only widen.

But there are signs that the average cinema junkie and Hollywood’s ruling class of voters can still meet in the middle.  Last year’s Best Picture winner, “Argo,” did very well at the box office, pulling in $136 million domestically. Two of the three movies seen as front-runners for this year’s Best Picture Oscar – “Gravity” and “American Hustle” – are financial hits, too.

Bob Bassett, dean of Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, says movies can be box-office hits and Oscar darlings if they follow the formula similar to the one played out in “Gravity.” The story needs to be “compelling,” “and then if they add special effects, it will be [lucrative at the] international box office,” Mr. Bassett says. “People want to see something they haven’t seen before.”

But viewers can count on the academy holding on to its standards. The third Best Picture contender for 2014, “12 Years a Slave,” lags far behind at the box office with only $44 million in sales. Meanwhile, “Hustle” with $130 million in ticket sales at press time, is on pace to catch up to recent high-grossing Best Picture winners such as “Slumdog Millionaire” ($141 million) and “The King’s Speech” ($135 million). “Gravity,” which topped the box office for multiple weeks and at press time had grossed $262 million, could become the highest-grossing Best Picture winner since “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” raked in $377 million in 2003.

It’s not that “12 Years a Slave” and other low-grossing films aren’t deserving of their Oscar nominations. It’s just that many moviegoers simply don’t want to see a dark film, Bassett says. “[‘12 Years a Slave’] is grim and people know that. People want to feel that there’s hope at the end.”

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