Both Oscar-watchers and Academy members have long assumed that there’s a difference between Best Picture contenders and movies that people actually see. Just two years ago, the Academy hoped to remedy the perceived issue with a new “Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film” award, an obvious play to get Avengers: Infinity War into the mix. The idea was eventually jettisoned when public criticism towards the definition of “popular” sprang up.
Even though the Academy didn’t add the category, the last two years of nominations signal that the movies people have seen and the ones that the Academy wants to honor are getting closer and closer together. Compared to 2009, when the The Hurt Locker notoriously won Best Picture over Avatar after earning a meager $17 million, the Academy’s 2020 Best Picture nominations have pulled in significantly more money at the box office than past competitors. Films like Joker, Once Upon a Time ... In Hollywood, and Ford v Ferrari aren’t just the best of the year, they’re also some of the biggest.
Much of the modern cause for alarm among Oscar prognosticators and critics started in 2015 when the nominees like Boyhood, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash, and eventual winner Birdman all failed to make a blockbuster-sized splash at the box office. To this day, none of those movies have crossed the $50 million mark domestically, even with their post-Oscar buzz. Collectively, that batch of 2015 nominees ended the year with a total of around $667 million, bolstered in large part thanks to the last-minute success of American Sniper, which made $350 million domestically — over $30 million more than the rest of the nominees combined.
While the criticism has been largely consistent in the years since, leading to a demand for the Popular Oscar, the 2016 nominees bucked the low returns of the year before. Movies like Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant, and Bridge of Spies were critically acclaimed movies and box office hits. Thanks to their spread these nominees combined for a box office total of over $800 million, without any one movie pushing to total up by too much.
The criticism that the Oscars were simply an elite enclave got louder with the results of both 2017 and 2018 which both came in around $650 million when they were announced. But, it is worth noting that since their post-Academy awards bump, each of those two years did manage to cross the $700 million mark in total domestic box office. TV ratings play a role in the elitism fear, too: the downward trend of Oscar ceremony viewership — which fell by over 30 million viewers in 2017, and by another 26 million in 2018, the show’s worst rated year ever — is often attributed to Best Picture contenders that people “aren’t seeing.”
The first real departure from the trend happened just last year when Best Picture nominees like Black Panther, A Star is Born, and Bohemian Rhapsody turned out to be smash hits, propelling the group’s total to over $1.3 billion. Black Panther alone contributed a staggering $700 million on its own. To add support to the hypothesis of Best Picture importance, the ratings for the show rose by almost 30 million viewers in 2019 as well.
Last year also introduced the new complication of streaming services to the Best Picture race with Netflix’s Roma. While Roma was available in a few select theaters in the United States, its domestic total isn’t concrete. And just like every other show and movie it has, Netflix wasn’t inclined to share any exact numbers of how many people watched Roma. Nielsen, which has been tracking Netflix for the last several years, did tell NBC News that 3.2 million US households watched Roma in January and February, but we don’t have anyway to turn that number into a tangible Box Office return. This means that last year’s incredible total was reached with only the totals of eight of the nine nominees.
This year’s potential Best Picture winners have enjoyed similar success. Ford v Ferrari crossed the over $110 million, along with Once Upon a Time ... In Hollywood’s total of over $140 million. Joker has made a massive $334 million domestically — and more overseas — while 1917 has made almost $40 million dollars in just a few days of wide release. Even Little Women has a chance to cross the $100 million mark, with the Korean drama Parasite putting up $25 million in the US, an incredibly impressive movie for a non-English language film.
All this year’s success brings its total to around $745 million domestically, and that’s with only the seven wide theatrical releases, since Marriage Story and The Irishman were both limited Netflix releases. More importantly, each of these movies is sure to get a major bump now that Oscar season has begun and the Best Picture race is underway.
While the Best Picture bump isn’t likely to take this year’s total to last year’s staggering heights — 2020’s nominees would have already passed their predecessor if it weren’t for Black Panther’s incredible returns — there’s reason to believe this year’s nominees could cross well over $800 million.
With two years of Best Picture nominees that have put up impressive Box Office numbers, it seems the Oscars may be trending in a new direction. The idea of a Popular Film Oscar may have died, but it’s possible the Academy took the idea behind it to heart. But whether another year of nominees with box office success will actually lead to another year of increased ratings is down to the viewers. They may have seen the movies, but now it’s a question of whether they stuck.