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. ...

We're sorry, but comments are closed for this article.

Comments (25)

  • Peter  

    Metacritic just gets better and better

  • David Johnson  

    Ah, very impressive, but you've forgotten the most important factor ... POLITICS!!!

    Whether it be giving the award to 'black' actors when they technically didn't deserve them (i.e.: Denzel Washington & Halle Berry in the same year), or recently with the lefty-greeny vote giving Al Gore the award for his monstrously-exaggerated 'documentary', the Academy will go with the left every time.

    As such, which do you think they'll pick, a movie that shows true heroism in the face of war and adversity (The Hurt Locker), or a blatantly anti-American, green-loving fairy tale (Avatar)???

    The defense rests ...

  • Nick  

    This is spectacular. I visited Metacritic every day anyway, but this is a huge jackpot bonus.

    Anyway, I've been a believer in the underdog ever since by beloved Crash pulled one out for me in 06. The academy has done alright, but them picking LOTR scares the **** out of me. That gives Avatar hope, as does its ridiculous box office. But I have a major crush on possibly my favorite movie of the last decade, Up in the Air. I know everyone's not in love, but the fact that the Academy got behind Crash (and the fact that most people who liked the movie loved it) gives me hope. Inglourious should be considered a contender. Everyone loves Tarantino, and it was seriously considered for Golden Globe Drama. Great cast, box office, editing, plot, cool enough for the Academy, dramatic enough too. Hurt Locker wouldn't suck. Avatar, though, would. It's simply not the best movie this year, plain and simple.

  • Keaton Johnsen  

    I don't really have much to say other than I agree with really everything epixsavior said. I keep complaining to all of my friends about how The Blind Side was picked and a great film like Invictus was snuffed.
    And as much as I want District 9 to win for its originality, brains, and balls-out action, I know it won't, but I can still pray.

  • epixsavior  

    adding a features section to metacritic was f***ing genius. this article was thorough, well thought-out and uses scientific analysis to back up its viewpoints/predictions. very well done. this gets better every year.

    personally, the blind side? really? precious owns it in the tear-jerker, inspirational movie quota. why?

    district 9: more exciting use of its ideas than most others would have done with the same concept. softens its brains in third act for non-stop action,
    (as all-profitable recent sci-fi movies in america have to do). will never, ever win but was nominated to give it credit for standing out and giving relevance to it's genre.

    they will do an upset and give the hurt locker best picture just to get cameron off his high horse and attempt to prove that they dont lead towards more populist fare. was pretty entertaining though, of course the CGI/3D was the best part.

    but seriously, the blind side? the blind side??? crash and the sixth sense made more sense being nominated in comparison.

    probably a ploy to get the 20 million people who saw the blind side a reason to watch the oscars. it works for what it is, but precious does this kind of thing so much better. i dont see oscar quality anywhere in the blind side...

    except maybe in sandra bullock's a**.

What Our Users Are Talking About

  1. /feature/new-movie-trailers-weekend-of-20160930 Image
    Film Friday (9/30): This Week's New Movie Trailers
    September 30, 2016 - 1 comment
    1. DanBurrito : Paterson looks very good. By the way, can you really call The Lion King remake "live action"? After all, unlike... Read »
  2. /feature/new-movie-trailers-weekend-of-20160923 Image
    Film Friday (9/23): This Week's New Movie Trailers
    September 23, 2016 - 1 comment
    1. DanBurrito : Passengers looks solid. Read »
  3. /feature/picks-for-who-will-win-2016-emmy-awards Image
    2016 Emmy Award Predictions from Experts & Users
    September 15, 2016 - 2 comments
    1. shaikmahabubsub : I don’t get it. Maggie’s Plan, Born to Be Blue and a A Bigger Splash… all of them debuted last year. It doesn’t make... Read »
  4. /feature/amazon-comedy-pilot-reviews-august-2016 Image
    Reviews for Amazon's 3 New Comedy Pilots (2016)
    August 19, 2016 - 2 comments
    1. Kevalar : JCVJ is easily the funniest of the three. The description for the show is actually incorrect. JCVD actually plays... Read »
  5. /feature/now-streaming-on-netflix Image
    What to Watch Now on Netflix
    September 22, 2016 - 17 comments
    1. HateSpammers : Oops! Or maybe I should have looked at the bottom of this list (and right about this comment box) to see that indeed... Read »
    2. HateSpammers : Would REALLY love to see this for Amazon Prime & Hulu, too. Read »
  6. /feature/tv-premiere-dates Image
    2016 Fall TV Premiere Calendar
    August 18, 2016 - 127 comments
    1. mjennette : Here's the calendar as it appeared on August 18th (original publish date for Fall 2016 season):... Read »
    2. rakija : Any chance of you creating a backlog of this calendar? So, if people can look back and see which shows have premiered... Read »
    3. partym0nster : @grammyhall wasn't the premiere last week Read »
    4. Grammyhall : Project runway isn't listed for tonight September 22 Read »