Breaking Down the Best Picture Box Office

Moonlight won Best Picture this year.

You know, the ending of the Oscars is already so legendary, I think more Americans have seen Moonlight‘s fumbled victory than actually watched the movie.

Jimmy Kimmel even made several jokes that no one saw the surprise winner. Let’s be clear, though; Moonlight is unquestionably a success. The movie’s $27 million U.S. take far exceeds its tiny $1.5 million budget. Because it won Best Picture, the movie has made 17% of its money since the ceremony ended. It’s already out on home media, and yet it’s opened in more theaters than it played before.

Pretty good for a movie that may be the second lowest-grossing Best Picture winner ever! 

According to Box Office MojoMoonlight‘s only ahead of the 2009 winner The Hurt Locker for winners since 1978 (numbers not adjusted for inflation). Revenue is still coming in, but Barry Jenkins’ movie needs a huge push to catch up to the next group of winners: The ArtistBirdman, and Spotlight, which all made $40-45 million.

Making a Best Picture sure is good for the future; your movie will be seen and remembered. People will revisit it for years and years. But we can’t ignore the truth: Our contemporary Best Picture nominees rarely are the year’s highest-grossing hits. We can chalk this up to many factors, some of which I’ll explore; but however we slice it, Best Pictures are no longer the movies that all Americans have seen.

Once upon a time, this correlation between numbers and noms was stronger — and that time wasn’t so long ago! To understand how things have changed, I compared the list of Best Picture nominations to the top ten grossing movies each year since 1980. Here’s a clear sign of the widening gap between what we watch and what we award:


(Best Picture winners are in ALL CAPS.)

The 2010s

2015   The Martian
2013   Gravity
2010   Toy Story #3, Inception

The 2000s
2009   Avatar, Up

2002   The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
2001   The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

The 1990s
1999   AMERICAN BEAUTY, The Sixth Sense

1998   SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, Saving Private Ryan
1997   TITANIC, As Good as It Gets, The Full Monty
1996   Jerry Maguire
1995   Apollo 13
1994   FORREST GUMP, Four Weddings and a Funeral
1993   SCHINDLER’S LIST, The Fugitive
1992   A Few Good Men
1991   THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Beauty and the Beast, JFK

The 1980s
1989   Dead Poets Society, Born on the Fourth of July
1988   RAIN MAN
1987   Fatal Attraction, Moonstruck
1986   PLATOON
1985   OUT OF AFRICA, The Color Purple, Witness
1982   E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Tootsie
1981   CHARIOTS OF FIRE, Raiders of the Lost Ark, On Golden Pond
1980   Coal Miner’s Daughter

The turning point is easy to spot. It’s right around 2003, where we have the last topten movie at the box office to win Best Picture. Since then, things have shifted dramatically. Take a look at what’s happened during that time:

  • The superhero movie rose. The first in the X-Men franchise came out in 2000; Christopher Nolan released Batman Begins in 2003; and 2007’s Iron Man set us on the path to Marvel’s domination.
  • 3D went mainstream again in the mid-2000s. The Polar Express in 2004 was one of the first to bring it back, and by 2009, studios were making bank off kids’ movies to horror films in the resurrected format. Avatar ensured 3D is here to stay.
  • We’d gotten used to streaming music with iTunes, and then Netflix started streaming movies in 2007.
  • 2008’s The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan again) failed to make the Best Picture list, despite great critical acclaim. The Oscars had forgotten about the movies people really watched, we all said. So what happened? The Academy expanded the Best Picture category to up to 10 movies — and arguably, it opened up more space for smaller movies just like Moonlight.

There’s one more variable to assess: the animated movie, which finally received its own category in 2001. I didn’t include Best Animated Feature nominees in the Best Picture list above, but it is possible that opening that category meant people didn’t need to nominate animated movies for the big prize. The animated movies basically fill in the gaps since 2001, and have become as robust at the box office as the Avengers have:

2016   Zootopia

2015   Inside Out
2013   Frozen, Despicable Me 2
2011   Kung Fu Panda 2
2010  How to Train Your Dragon  [Toy Story 3 nommed for Picture]
2009  [Up nommed for Picture]
2008   Kung Fu Panda, Wall-E
2007   Ratatouille
2006   Cars, Happy Feet
2004   The Incredibles, Shark Tale, Shrek 2
2003   Finding Nemo
2002   Ice Age
2001   Shrek, Monsters Inc.


What this all means is not that quality dramas don’t make money now. If we adjust for inflation, Argo and The King’s Speech did as well as several ’90s Best Pictures. But the ceiling has risen astronomically, and there’s not as much room for all those quality dramas to do well. Could you imagine a movie like On Golden Pond (starring septuagenarians Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn) as the #2 movie of 2017?

2016’s top ten includes
FIVE sequels/continuations;
FIVE Disney studio movies (and in the top five slots!);
FOUR superhero stories;
THREE animated features; and
THREE subtitles.

These franchises have raised the box-office roof, and there’s simply less space (and less allowance money) for Moonlight to hack into our national viewing rotation. So the Oscars serve a different role than they did fifteen years ago. The Best Picture winner isn’t necessarily a movie that’s been seen more than most other movies. More often than not, it’s a boost for one of the little guys, often independently financed or picked up by a studio after its first release.

Best Picture isn’t a nod to what we saw; it’s a marker of what we should see.


One comment

  1. Love the post. Thanks!

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