No matter which film wins the best picture Academy Award on Sunday, it won’t be a box office blockbuster.
This year’s highest-grossing best picture nominee, Dunkirk, made $188 million in the US. The next highest, Get Out, made $176 million. (That’s an impressive return on investment for a $4.5 million movie, but paltry compared to what mass-market hits like Star Wars: The Last Jedi or Wonder Woman brought in.) The two odds-on favorites for best picture, The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, made just $55 and $50 million, respectively.
Last year’s winner, Moonlight, grossed less than $28 million in the US, and the 2016 winner, Spotlight, grossed $45 million. But the expectation that the Academy’s highest honor goes to smaller, artsy movies is relatively new. Between 1957 and 2004, almost 75% of best picture Oscars went to films that grossed over $200 million in the United States (adjusted for inflation).
In the first half of the 20th century, best picture nominees were often the most popular movies of that year. Adjusted for inflation, 1965’s winner, The Sound of Music, made an unthinkable $1.3 billion in the US. Even in 1998, Titanic made over $1 billion and won the award.
The era when Hollywood’s financial sensations won the top Oscar ended in 2004, the year The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King grossed more than $500 million in the US and won 11 Oscars, including best picture. In the 13 years since, only eight of the 106 best picture nominees have grossed more than $200 million in the US, and none of those have won the award.
It’s possible Academy voters are turning up their noses at popular entertainment. More likely, though, the drop-off in box office hits winning best picture is due to the decline in the quality of those blockbusters themselves. With major film studios leaning heavily on stale sequels and reboots, establishment Hollywood seems to have run out ideas. It’s not surprising, then, that it has also stopped winning awards.