Box Office vs. Oscars

When predicting this year’s Best Picture Oscar for your annual office pool—not that we condone gambling—bear in mind the following caveat: the box office is no Oscar psychic!

One of many Oscar myths says that Academy members only nominate the year’s chief breadwinners for Best Picture, choosing the most lucrative among those to take home Oscar bling. History dispels this myth, however, since past winners’ earnings are all over the place, instead of only high. Furthermore, if it were true, then where amongst this year’s noms is Kong? Potter? Narnia? Sith?

Busting this myth doesn’t mean that the mega-blockbusters don’t get love (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King of ’03, anyone?), but there appears to be more of a healthy fluctuation than is commonly suspected. This year’s winner will really do a number on the numbers, since none of the nominees will have even eclipsed the $100 million (Oscar) gold standard. In fact, Brokeback Mountain, an indie in spirit and ambition, is the closest of the nominees to that mark, with just over $75 million* in the bank. Furthermore, last year’s winner, Million Dollar Baby, just eked out 100 mil.

As we round the corner for this year’s ceremony (Sunday, March 5), a glimpse into the Oscars’ recent history reveals interesting tidbits about the Best Picture category, some of which may help foretell this year’s outcome. After adjusting box office figures to reflect today’s ticket prices, we looked at the past 20 years to compare each year’s Best Picture winner to that year’s highest grossing movie.

Here’s what we found: after box-office adjustments were made, all but one Best Picture winner (1987’s Last Emperor) grossed at least $100 million; on four occasions (20 percent), the Best Picture winner was also the year’s highest grossing film; the average updated box office gross of Best Picture winners was approximately $224 million, while the average updated box office gross of the highest grossing film from each year (including 2005) was approximately $391 million. In addition, on just five occasions (25 percent) was the year’s highest grosser even nominated. What sense is to be made of all of this? While Best Picture winners are almost certain to rake in the dough, they pale in comparison to the money made on the true blockbusters of years past. Which spawns a whole box office-versus-quality debate, but, darn it, this is box office-versus-Oscars! Speaking of which—Happy Oscars.

Below is the list of Best Picture winners as compared to each year’s highest grossing film, with each film’s box office gross (pre-2004) updated:

*as of Feb. 26

Year
Best Picture Oscar® Winner, Gross Box Office / Adjusted¹ Gross Domestic Box Office
2005
?
2004
Million Dollar Baby

$100,422,786 / $100,422,786

2003
Lord of the Rings:  The Return of the King

$376,853,002 / $388,102,345

2002
Chicago 

$170,684,505 / $182,435,589

2001
A Beautiful Mind

$170,708,996 / $187,297,326

2000
Gladiator 

$187,670,866 / $216,221,906

1999
American Beauty 

$130,058,047 / $158,988,281

1998
Shakespeare in Love  

$100,241,342 / $132,728,914

1997
Titanic

$600,743,440 / $812,770,536

1996
The English Patient 

$78,651,430 / $110,503,479

1995
Braveheart 

$75,545,647 / $107,847,923

1994
Forrest Gump  

$329,168,011 / $489,027,116

1993
Schindler’s List  

$96,045,248 / $144,067,872

1992
Unforgiven 

 $100,003,672 / $149,644,048

1991
The Silence of the Lambs  

$130,650,794 / $192,717,679

1990
Dances with Wolves

$184,010,809 / $270,143,528

1989
Driving Miss Daisy  

$105,584,081 / $165,153,277

1988
Rain Man  

$171,188,895 / $258,657,673

1987
The Last Emperor  

$43,020,223 / $68,326,236

1986
Platoon  

$131,755,562 / $220,539,633

1985
Out of Africa 

$83,142,343 / $145,440,5

1Adjusted Gross Domestic Box Office figures are derived based on the total domestic gross of the film, divided by average ticket price in the year of release, multiplied by 2004 average ticket price ($6.21). Average annual ticket prices source: MPAA.

Year
Top Box Office Film’s Gross Domestic Box Office / Adjusted¹ Gross Domestic Box Office
2005
Star Wars: Episode III–Revenge of the Sith 

$380,262,555

2004
Shrek 2 

$436,471,036 / $436,471,036

2003
Lord of the Rings:  The Return of the King

$376,853,002 / $388,102,345

2002
Spider-Man

 $403,706,375 / $431,500,273

2001
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

$317,557,891 / $348,415,989

2000
Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas 

$260,031,035 / $299,590,487

1999
Star Wars Episode I–The Phantom Menace 

$431,065,444 / $526,952,048

1998
Saving Private Ryan 

$216,119,491 / $286,162,481

1997
Titanic

$600,743,440 / $812,770,536

1996
Independence Day 

$306,169,255 / $430,160,876

1995
Toy Story 

$191,773,049 / $273,772,559

1994
Forrest Gump  

$329,168,011 / $489,027,116

1993
Jurassic Park

$356,748,415 / $535,122,622

1992
Aladdin  

$217,042,825 / $324,779,745

1991
Terminator 2  Judgment Day 

$203,347,436 / $299,949,543

1990
Home Alone 

$281,493,907 / $413,257,012

1989
Batman 

$250,713,403 / $392,173,862

1988
Rain Man  

$171,188,895 / $258,657,673

1987
Three Men and a Baby 

$167,780,960 / $266,475,642

1986
Top Gun 

$176,650,237 / $295,686,784

1985
Back to the Future  

$200,785,744 / $351,233,653

1Adjusted Gross Domestic Box Office figures are derived based on the total domestic gross of the film, divided by average ticket price in the year of release, multiplied by 2004 average ticket price ($6.21). Average annual ticket prices source: MPAA.

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