Friday, January 14, 2011

Do Oscar Winners Make Less Money Than They Used To?


The Atlantic has a couple of interesting slideshows up, one with the 15 Highest-Grossing Best Picture Oscar winners and one with the 15 Lowest-Grossing ones. Some surprising (to me) things in there, including the fact that the ever-so-iconic An American in Paris apparently wasn't a big moneymaker, and that the now-virtually-forgotten Around the World in 80 Days was. I'm sure those facts aren't news to people who follow box office reports and Oscar history closely, but I don't, so there. Still, these lists did get me thinking...

The package is accompanied by a piece from Bill Wyman called The Oscars and the Box Office: A Tale of Two Hollywoods. Wyman makes some observations about what he sees as an increasing tendency on the part of the Oscars to award somewhat less popular films (No Country for Old Men, The Hurt Locker, etc.), as well as their seeming attempt to popularize the Oscars (or, more specifically, the Oscar telecast) by expanding the Best Picture nominee pool to ten films, thus hoping to attract that all important Avatar-Dark Knight demographic. He wisely doesn’t draw too many conclusions, aside from noting, as the title of his piece suggests, that Hollywood seems to be increasingly divided into those making big populist (and, let’s face it, often dumb) tentpoles and those making smaller, award-winning prestige films.

I suppose all that is true to some extent. It could also simply be phrased as: “Once upon a time, the studios seemed to make all the movies, and now they only seem to make some of the movies.” (Of course, they never really made all of the movies, but that’s another discussion.) Which means that smaller films now have a pretty good chance at a nomination and at winning. (I should put “smaller” in quotes – we’re not exactly talking about Alamar making a run for the big prize here.) That said, I also think we tend to make too many assumptions based on only-somewhat-related events. Just for laughs, I decided to put the lowest-grossing and highest-grossing Best Picture winners in chronological order, which gave me something like this (the red titles are the lowest-grossing, the blue titles are the highest-grossing):

8 : It Happened One Night (1934) 
Original Gross: $2,500,000
Adjusted Gross: $86,413,043

10 : The Great Ziegfeld (1936)
Original Gross: $43,984,000
Adjusted Gross: $89,430,383

1. Gone With the Wind 1939)
Original Gross: $189,523,031
Adjusted Gross: $6,550,904,767

11 : The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Original Gross: $23,600,000
Adjusted Gross: $536,057,142

3 : Hamlet (1948)
Original Gross: $3,075,000
Adjusted Gross: $61,115,625

2 : All the King's Men (1949)
Original Gross: $3,500,000
Adusted Gross: $60,489,130

4 : An American in Paris (1951)
Original Gross: $4,500,000
Adjusted Gross: $67,500,000

10 : The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
Original Gross: $36,000,000
Adjusted Gross: $540,000,000

6 : Marty (1955)
Original Gross: in the range of $4,000,000
Adjusted Gross: $70,666,666

6 : Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
Original Gross: $42,000,000
Adjusted Gross: $667,800,000

12: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Original Gross: $33,300,000
Adjusted Gross: $529,470,000

11 : Gigi (1958)
Original Gross: $7,300,000
Adjusted Gross: $116,070,000

3 : Ben-Hur (1959)
Original Gross: $73,000,000
Adjusted Gross: $1,137,941,176

13 : West Side Story (1961)
Original Gross: $43,700,000
Adjusted Gross: $503,500,000

9 : My Fair Lady (1964)
Original Gross: $159,616,327
Adjusted Gross: $716,920,790

2 : The Sound of Music (1965)
Original Gross: $163,214,286
Adjusted Gross: $1,284,706,509

7 : The Godfather (1972)
Original Gross: $134,966,411
Adjusted Gross: $631,166,451

5 : The Sting (1973)
Original Gross: $159,616,327
Adjusted Gross: $716,920,790
15 : Rocky (1976)
Original Gross: $117,235,147
Adjusted Gross: $437,567,802

14 : Annie Hall (1977)
Original Gross: $38,251,425
Adjusted Gross: $136,367,187

12 : Amadeus (1984)
Original Gross: $51,973,029
Adjusted Gross: $122,971,899

9 : The Last Emperor (1987)
Original Gross: $43,984,000
Adjusted Gross: $89,430,383

8 : Forrest Gump (1994)
Original Gross: $159,616,327
Adjusted Gross: $716,920,790

15 : Braveheart (1995)
Original Gross: $75,545,647
Adjusted Gross: $138,066,182

4 : Titanic (1997)
Original Gross: $600,788,188
Adjusted Gross: $1,040,580,848

14 : The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)
Original Gross: $377,027,325
Adjusted Gross: $497,075,826

13 : Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Original Gross: $100,492,203
Adjusted Gross: $128,649,438

5 : Crash (2005)
Original Gross: $54,557,348
Adjusted Gross: $67,664,729

7 : No Country for Old Men (2007)
Original Gross: $74,273,505
Adjusted Gross: $85,824,762

1 : The Hurt Locker (2009)
Original Gross: $14,700,000
Adjusted Gross: $15,582,000

Which reveals…uh, very little. (Though it is always nice to be reminded that Gone With the Wind made 6.5 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars.) The makeup of the Academy that in 1949, 1950, and 1952 voted for Hamlet, All the King’s Men, and An American in Paris  -- the 3rd  2nd  and 4th lowest grossing winners, respectively -- was presumably not all that different from the makeup of the Academy that in 1953 voted for The Greatest Show on Earth -- the 10th highest-grossing and one of the lamer Best Picture winners.* (BTW, if you’re wondering who won in 1951, it was All About Eve, which made a respectable-though-not-eye-popping $8,400,000.) Ditto for those who voted for Rocky and Annie Hall in consecutive years.

Could the same be said for the makeup of the Academy that voted for the sensitive drama Marty in 1956 (6th lowest-grossing) and then turned around and voted for the bombastic Around the World in 80 Days (6th highest-grossing) the following year? There is actually a case where one may have been a response to the other: Marty had its origins in TV drama, and Hollywood was starting to feel a little anxious about the whole TV thing. Maybe that's why the Around the World in 80 Days year was an all-epic-all-the-time lineup, with the other Best Picture nominees being Giant, The King and I, Friendly Persuasion, and The Ten Commandments. Major nominees for other awards that year included War and Peace, Lust for Life, and Anastasia. Alas, The Searchers, at the time considered something of a disappointment, was totally snubbed.

Damned if I know if any of that has any bearing on recent Oscar races. Maybe Avatar might have won this year had it been a 2010 release; a populist response to last year's marginalized champ The Hurt Locker. Many did actually think Avatar was going to win last year, which I personally thought was kind of nuts; Locker’s win seemed like a foregone conclusion for most of awards season. But if James Cameron's film had somehow managed to win, then obviously we wouldn’t be talking about how specialized the Best Picture winners have become. And none of this means anything, of course, since we don’t know who exactly voted for each film and by how many votes each film won. But who knows? Maybe Inception’s still got a shot. Heh. 


* If my dating seems confusing, that's because when I talk of a film winning an Oscar or the Academy voting for something, I'm using the year of the voting and the ceremony -- which is obviously the year after the film's release.

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