The Academy nominated nine critically acclaimed movies for Best Picture and not a single blockbuster.
All of the Best Picture nominees combined have pulled in about $609 million at the domestic box office so far, according to statistics from Box Office Mojo, which tracks movie earnings data.
That’s just under $2 million less than what “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” earned on its own. “Star Wars” was 2017’s top-grossing movie.
That kind of disparity isn’t new. For years, the Oscars have rewarded smaller, more prestigious movies instead of the blockbusters that are friendlier with audiences.
“It used to be when you won Best Picture, that was it: You were number one in Hollywood. And it doesn’t feel that way anymore,” said Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations.
Over time, Bock said major studios realized they could capitalize on summer hits that didn’t necessarily need awards show glory to make money.
That’s where niche award show films entered the picture, said Jonathan Kuntz, a film historian and lecturer at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. Notorious film producer Harvey Weinstein — now best known for the many sexual assault allegations against him — realized in the 1990s that he could cash in on low- or mid-budget films with chances at Oscar success.
Winning an Oscar is a great way to advertise a movie.
For example, the Weinstein Company’s “The Artist” cost only $15 million to make and grossed $12 million before it was nominated for Best Picture, but it topped out at $44 million after it won, according to Box Office Mojo.
Fox Searchlight’s “Slumdog Millionaire” made more than two-thirds of its box office earnings after it was nominated for Best Picture. It collected $141 million in 2008.
The trend of the Academy choosing movies with meager box office returns has really only solidified in the last several years. For a time in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, box office winners still found a lot of success.
“Titanic,” for example, picked up 11 Academy Awards in 1998, including Best Picture. It also raked in about $600 million at the box office, most of which was earned before its nomination. That year’s ceremony drew 55 million viewers, the most in recent memory.
And “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” was no slouch in 2004. The movie earned $377 million, and 43 million people tuned in to watch it win Best Picture.
There’s a reason why audiences tuned in those years, Bock said: “People actually have seen those films.”
By comparison, recent winners “Spotlight” and “Moonlight” earned less than $80 million combined in theaters. Even though those movies were universally praised by critics, audiences weren’t as enthusiastic. Less than 35 million people watched each ceremony, making them among the lowest rated.
This year, only two of the Best Picture nominees ranked in the Box Office Mojo’s top 15 highest-grossing films of 2017: the war epic “Dunkirk” (No. 14) and the subversive horror movie “Get Out” (No. 15).
The modest totals from other movies, including “Lady Bird,” “Phantom Thread” and “The Shape of Water,” are unsurprising. They’re playing on far fewer screens, and aren’t marketed to the broader public in the way that “Wonder Woman” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” were.
Neither of the latter movies received any Oscar nominations, despite winning over critics and audiences.
That’s a missed opportunity, Bock says. Nominating “Wonder Woman” for a prominent award might have driven more buzz to the show itself.
“Think about how big it would be if people tuned in to see, ‘Wow, is Wonder Woman actually going to will Best Actress?’ It would be huge,” he said.
Yet picking smaller films gives the Academy an opportunity to recognize achievements of small, independent artists, noted Kuntz, the UCLA lecturer.
“That seems to be what the Academy wants now,” he said. “They can be seen to be rewarding different people and different kinds of quality films.”
Besides, he added: Why does a major studio like Disney even need an Academy Award nomination for a monster hit like Star Wars?
“Disney is the largest movie making entity on the planet, and it’s already got a billion dollars out of that picture,” he added. “Do they really need an Academy Award also?”