Surprise! Oscars for Best Picture Were Often Awarded to Blockbusters

This may come as a surprise, but not long ago, the preferences of Academy voters were very much aligned with the tastes of the general public. They both loved blockbusters! From 1927 to 1976, roughly 90 percent of Oscars for Best Picture were awarded to films that were also in the top ten grossing pictures for their year. Academy voters and the public alike enjoyed a wide variety of films such as serious romance dramas like Casablanca, adventures like Around the World in 80 Days, historical dramas like Ben-Hur, and musicals like My Fair Lady. Our collective minds and tastes were the same.

But From 1977 to 2012, Academy voters and public tastes began to diverge. During that period only about 44 percent of Oscars for Best Picture were awarded to the top ten grossing films. And it got worse. Since 2003, only one of the past ten Best Picture Oscar winners (10 percent) was also a top ten grossing film for its year (Lords of the Rings: Return of the King). So whereas 90 percent of Academy voters used to be perfectly aligned with public sentiment, now 90 percent are not. The industry and the public went their separate ways. What happened?

Star Wars and Annie Hall.

In 1977, George Lucas began a new era. Star Wars ushered in the contemporary age of blockbusters, one of special effects and grandeur laced with science fiction and fantasy narratives. The public embraced it wholeheartedly, making it the #1 box office draw with a 1977 domestic gross of roughly $195 million. Due to added theater runs, Star Wars went on to make $461 million domestically and $775 million worldwide. Despite the profound impact of Star Wars, Academy voters rejected it. They gave the Best Picture Oscar to Woody Allen's Annie Hall which made only $38 million. It came in at #11 that year, just outside the top 10, but it was a sign of things to come.

And so an epic battle began. It pitted big, science fiction and fantasy concepts against niche, humanistic narratives about the lives of ordinary people and historical figures. Best Picture Oscars went to Gandhi ($53 million domestic box office) instead E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial ($359 million), to The English Patient ($79 million) instead of Independence Day ($306 million), to Crash ($55 million) instead of Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith ($380 million), to The Hurt Locker ($17 million) instead of Avatar ($750 million) and to The Artist ($45 million) instead of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 ($381 million).

Did the general public change or did Academy voters change? Perhaps a little bit of both. In the early days of Hollywood, the Academy was filled with younger voters who had similar sensibilities of the general public. Today the average age of an Academy member is 63 while movie goers stayed predominately young. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, it's understandable that Academy voters would nominate films with older sensibilities like the recent Nebraska. It's also no surprise that Academy voters would nominate 2011 films like The Artist and Hugo since both are about the early days of film. We each view the world through our own subjective lenses.

The public changed as well. They have fully embraced the new. They love the spectacle of today's blockbusters. The films are carefully crafted to enhance the emotional connection of storytelling, making their narratives meaningful to millions. Just ask 20 year olds of the importance that Harry Potter played in their young lives, or ask a young girl of today what Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games means to her. I have done so in various audience research projects, so I know that the appeal of these films is not derived from the commercial availability of merchandise; it's derived from the conveyance of youthful empowerment.

The Academy recently handed out new memberships to a more diverse group, including younger filmmakers. A noble effort, but a year later the age of membership edged upwards anyways because the older members gained a year. So the great divide that started in 1977 with George Lucas and Woody Allen remains. Best Picture awards will tend go to smaller films enjoyed by few, not the blockbusters enjoyed by many.

To bridge the divide between the old and new sensibilities of filmmaking, I started a petition that asks the Academy to create a new award, that of Best Blockbuster, that I also mentioned in a previous blog. The link is below if you care to sign it. The top ten films as measured by worldwide box office receipts would automatically be nominated, and the Academy members would then vote for the one that they believe has the greatest artistry. I estimate that my petition needs six billion signatures to change the opinion of six thousand Academy members. But hey, Rocky had worse odds, and the film got both an Oscar for Best Picture and was a box office smash. But then again, that was one year before Star Wars and Annie Hall changed everything.