The Oscars: How to Predict the Best Picture Winner

  • Publish Date: February 4, 2010
  • Comments: ↓ 25 user comments

What do box office receipts tell us?

Here are this year's nominees ranked by their domestic box office totals (to date). If you have been living in a cave, it might interest you to know that Avatar is not just the highest-grossing film of the past year, but also of all time. (Of course, you probably have more important things to think about, what with that cave and all.)

2010 Best Picture Nominees
Nominees Ranked by Gross Domestic Gross Year Rank   Nominees Ranked by Gross Domestic Gross Year Rank
1 Avatar $598.5 1   6 Up in the Air $73.5 43
2 Up $293.0 5   7 Precious $45.5 66
3 The Blind Side $238.0 8   8 The Hurt Locker $12.7 130
4 Inglourious Basterds $120.5 25   9 A Serious Man $9.2 142
5 District 9 $115.6 27   10 An Education $8.8 144

All grosses are in millions. Year Rank indicates placement among all 2009 releases. Source for box office figures: Box Office Mojo.

An interesting picture emerges when we examine the box office performance of Oscar winners over the past decade:
Recent Best Picture Winners
Year Winner Metascore Dom. Gross Year Rank Nominee Rank PRE-NOMINATION Rank
2009 Slumdog Millionaire 86 $141.3 16 1st 2nd
2008 No Country for Old Men 91 $74.3 36 2nd 2nd
2007 The Departed 86 $132.4 15 1st 1st
2006 Crash 69 $54.6 49 2nd 1st
2005 Million Dollar Baby 86 $100.5 24 2nd 5th *
2004 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King 94 $377.0 1 1st 1st
2003 Chicago 82 $170.7 10 2nd 3rd
2002 A Beautiful Mind 72 $170.7 11 2nd 2nd
2001 Gladiator 64 $187.8 4 1st 1st
2000 American Beauty 86 $130.1 13 3rd 3rd

Year Rank indicates placement among all films released the same year as the nominee. Nominee Rank indicates placement among the five best picture nominees that year. Pre-Nomination Rank is again the placement among the five nominees, but ranked according to grosses just prior to the announcement of the Oscar nominations. All grosses are in millions. * Million Dollar Baby was not yet in wide release at the time nominations were announced.

Aha! Now we're onto something. Although the Academy hasn't nominated too many box office blockbusters over the past decade, it seems to favor the nominees that sell more tickets when compared to each other. You'll have to go back to 2000 to find a best picture winner that wasn't among the top two nominees in terms of box office grosses. Clearly, that must mean that either Avatar or Up will win best picture this year, right?

Possibly, with the major caveat that, now that the field has expanded to 10 films, anything could happen. There is a logical reason to think there might be a connection between box office performance and best picture winners. Bigger box office grosses mean that more people have seen those films, resulting in (presumably) more buzz about those films -- at least among moviegoers who aren't film critics. It also makes it more likely that Academy Members themselves have seen those films prior to the announcement of nominations. And strong box office performance also serves as reinforcement for votes; an otherwise undecided Academy member might be more likely to pick a higher-grossing film simply because it is the safe pick, since that film already has the stamp of approval of the moviegoing public.

Of course, the Academy doesn't always pick the very highest-grossing movie. Some recent instances where voters have passed over the best performing of the five nominees include:

  • 2008, when Juno 81 -- the lone contender to gross over $100 million, though it wasn't in the year's top 10 -- was passed over for a film (No Country for Old Men 91) that grossed approximately half as much;
  • 2006, when the Oscar went to Crash 69 -- easily the worst-performing of all best picture winners over the past decade -- over the somewhat higher-grossing Brokeback Mountain 87, which was not a box office hit itself. Crash, however, was ranked 1st at the time of the nominations; and
  • 2005, when winner Million Dollar Baby 86 grossed only slightly less than The Aviator 77. Neither film reached the top 20 that year.

There are, in addition, two nominated mega-hits not to take home best picture honors over the past decade, but they were related: LOTR: The Two Towers 88 (the #2 grossing film in 2002, which lost out to Chicago 82), and LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring 92 (the #2 grossing film in 2001, which lost out to A Beautiful Mind 72). Of course, giving either of those first two Lord of the Rings films the Oscar would have been problematic for the Academy, since it would have set up a situation where virtually the same film could have won in consecutive years. The last time a nominated, non-LOTR box-office blockbuster was passed over for the Oscar was in 2000, when The Sixth Sense 64 lost to American Beauty 86.

How about further back in time? During the 1990s, several nominated films that finished among their year's top five films in domestic grosses lost the Oscar to lesser-performing titles. However, throughout that decade, the winning film was again either first or second in grosses among the five best picture nominees. Again, that's a good sign for fans of Avatar and Up, this year's two highest-grossing nominees.

Not yet convinced about Avatar? Let's check one additional indicator: awards handed out by other organizations. ...

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Comments (25)

  • Chad S.  

    "Avatar" can't win. It benefited from the expansion of the Best Picture nominee list. "The Hurt Locker" has to win, or else the Academy Awards will lose what credibility they still have left. "Avatar" versus "The Hurt Locker" has 1977 written all over it. This is "Star Wars" versus "Annie Hall" II. And 1993, too, pertaining to the Best Director race, in which Kathryn Bigelow goes against James Cameron, the battle of the sexes, similar to Jane Campion's bid to beat out Steven Spielberg, when "The Piano" competed with "Schindler's List".

  • steve4922  

    MARK HANSSON SAID: "With only $16 million in total worldwide revenue, ['The Hurt Locker'] is not likely to beat 'Avatar' for Best Picture at a time when the Academy needs to reconnect with the general public. The shutout of 'Dark Knight' last year caused such an uproar that the 10 slots were revived for the first time in 66 years (1943), so there is little chance they will pick a low grossing film this year to avoid mass cultural rejection of the entire award."

    MY REPSONSE: You never know what will happen, and "Avatar" could still pull out a win of the BP Oscar. For a while I had no doubt that "Avatar" would win based upon its box office. But the film has not done very well with the major Guilds--the Directors Guild (which Bigelow won), the Producers Guild, the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild. It was big surprise when "The Hurt Locker" won the Producers Guild; Avatar's box office prowess should have made it a cinch for an award from film producers. Moreover, "Avatar" didn't receive a single nomination from the Screen Actors Guild, and it is very unlikely to win the Writers Guild--the film's screenplay is not nominated for an Oscar and the script is generally regarded as the weakest part of the film.

    In terms of the Guild awards, there is no comparison between "Titanic" (Cameron's last Oscar winning film) and "Avartar. "Titanic" won the Directors Guild and the Producers Guild, and the Screen Actors Guild nominated the film for its best cast awards and gave Gloria Stuart its best supporting actress award--Stuart tied with Kim Basinger.

    So I still think that "The Hurt Locker" is the favorite to win at this point. Of course, with AMPAS, nothing is ever for certain.

  • Shegan  

    While I knows that it does not stand a chance of winning when matched against the monolith that is "Avatar", and the critical favorite "The Hurt Locker", my fingers are crossed for "Up". It was huge commercial success, and had wonderful visuals, and masterful, heartfelt storytelling that connected with children and adults alike because it was simply a fantastic, timeless film. As an animation buff, I find it frustrating that animated films such as "Up" have been disregarded in previous years, as this article points out. Excellent animated movies have frequently been shortchanged by the Academy, who don't even give them a fighting chance for any of the "big" awards. I mean, if you take a look at some of the films up for Best Animated Feature this year (Coraline, Princess and The Frog, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox), they have performed just as well, if not better amongst critics than many nominated for Best Picture, in addition to having better box office performances. It seems unfair to me that brilliant films like those from Pixar ("Wall-E" or Hayao Miazaki (His excellent "Ponyo" was snubbed this year), amongst others, are never "taken seriously". Instead they are relegated to the cinematic ghetto of Best Animated Picture, where they hardly have a shot of even being nominated for Best Picture, even if a nomination is rightly deserved.

  • William  

    District 9 was the best film of 2009. It wiped the floor with Avatar in terms of writing. While its not as visually dynamic, it was the better film. It might have a chance because it was made with a tiny budget and an inexperienced writer, while Avatar needed a 500 million budget to be made (and i don't think it was worth it).

    District 9 gets my vote, but its not happening because the Academy wouldn't know a good movie if it smacked them in the head

  • Mark Hansson  

    I'm a DGA Member and in 61 years of DGA Awards, the DGA feature winner has won for the same film as the Best Picture Oscar winner 49 out of 61 times - so has the DGA has differed with the Academy 12 times over the years, not twice. This year's winner, Kathryn Bigelow, is the first woman to win the feature film DGA Award and if she wins the Oscar for directing, will also be the first woman to do so. She has a very good chance of winning and that will be the consolation prize for "Hurt Locker" because with only $16 million in total worldwide revenue, her film is not likely to beat "Avatar" for Best Picture at a time when the Academy needs to reconnect with the general public. The shutout of "Dark Knight" last year caused such an uproar that the 10 slots were revived for the first time in 66 years (1943), so there is little chance they will pick a low grossing film this year to avoid mass cultural rejection of the entire award.

  • Christopher G  

    The last time a movie without either an acting or writing nomination won best picture was Grand Hotel back in 1932. That's the history Avatar is going against. Also I think people underestimate the Academy's resistance to science fiction. Lord of the Rings in not science fiction, it is fantasy. That said Avatar can still win BP. I feel pretty strongly, though am not 100%, that Bigalow will take Best Director. On picture I think it's a three way race between Avatar, Hurt Locker, and Inglorious Basterds. The latter is a bigtime longshot, but at this point it has a better chance than Up in the Air which may very well get shut out on awards night.

  • Kevin  

    I agree with Steve - the DGA has accurately predicted the Best Picture Oscar for 58 out of the past 60 years. Given that Avatar also lacks acting or writing noms, that easily puts Hurt Locker as the frontrunner for Best Picture. And quite frankly, I'm praying it does win. While Avatar is far from the best of the year, and as such doesn't deserve the award. My faith has been shaken recently when the Academy chose to do things like snub Children of Men for a BP nom and choose The Lives of Others over Pan's Labyrinth, and if they choose Avatar this year that will pretty much be the final nail in the coffin.

  • Mikey  

    Avatar honestly looked like the dumbest movie ever, until I went and saw it...then saw it again and again. It gets better every time when you realize that a ot of creativity went into the movie, and that it wasn't just ripped off of Pocahontas or Dances with Wolves like everyone says. I think it should win the best picture award for revolutionalizing the way movies are made. People watch movies to be entertained, and this movie really gets the message across.

  • steve4922  

    You've left out what is probably the single most predictive award in terms of the best picture Oscar--the Director's Guild Award, which Kathyrn Bigelow (the director of "The Hurt Locker" won on January 30. While James Cameron won this award in 1998 for directing Titanic, he didn't win this year. With "The Hurt Locker" having won best picture and director from the Broadcast Film Critics, the Producers Guild Award and the Directors Guild Award, and having tied with Avatar for the most Oscar nominations, it is the frontrunner at this point.

  • Aiden  

    Good feature, I like both Avatar and the Hurt Locker, so it seems I won't be disappointed either way. =)

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