Measures of Success

If you’ve taken a look at the Academy Award Best Picture Nominees for 2011, you might have noticed that none of them were smash hits at the box office. In fact, according to the worldwide gross data available at, we find that this year’s highest ranking nominee, The Help, managed only 32nd place in 2011. This is a historic low:

Best Picture Nominee Worldwide Box Office Grosses, 1989-2011

YearTop Ranking Best Picture NomineeRankBest Picture WinnerRank
2011The Help32??
2010Toy Story 31The King's Speech13
2009Avatar1The Hurt Locker93
2008Slumdog Millionare14Slumdog Millionare14
2007Juno22No Country for Old Men31
2006The Departed14The Departed14
2005Brokeback Mountain24Crash54
2004Million Dollar Baby21Million Dollar Baby21
2003LotR: Return of the King1LotR: Return of the King1
2002LotR: Two Towers1Chicago12
2001LotR: The Fellowship of the Ring2A Beautiful Mind12
1999The Sixth Sense2American Beauty9
1998Saving Private Ryan2Shakespeare in Love9
1996Jerry Maguire9The English Patient11
1995Apollo 133Braveheart13
1994Forrest Gump2Forrest Gump2
1993The Fugitive3Schindler's List4
1992A Few Good Men7Unforgiven13
1991Beauty and the Beast3The Silence of the Lambs5
1990Ghost1Dances With Wolves4
1989Dead Poets Society5Driving Miss Daisy13
Yearly rank of Worldwide Gross among all movies each year taken from For fun, I've emboldened movies that I've already seen.


That’s as far back as the data goes on the website, but my guess would be that this year’s class of nominees holds this record over the 84-year history of the Academy Awards. The ostensible trend is that the tastes of the Academy are diverging from those of the global consumer base, but this is really only a cursory glance into this notion. I just found it kind of fun to think about.

It also looks like this year’s winner will beat out 2008′s The Hurt Locker as the least profitable Best Picture by rank: The Artist, which currently stands an 84% chance of winning this year’s Best Picture according to Intrade, is ranked 104th in worldwide gross so far this year.

A couple caveats:

  • There are still a few films in this year’s class which are still in theaters in some locations. Therefore, it’s possible that The Help will move up another spot or two.
  • Using Worldwide box office statistics probably inflates action films and deflates the arthouse-type films which have been nominated in recent years.

And a few final thoughts:

  • Has there been a study done on demonstrable effects of piracy on different strata of films? [EDIT: The answer to this, of course, is yes.]  In an attempt to analyze consumer psychology, I would guess that the ability to pirate makes a consumer much less likely to purchase or rent a DVD of a marginal film that she isn’t sure she’ll like. I wonder if the increased knowledge of and availability of torrent trackers could be linked to an increasing divergence in the financial success of more predictable films (sequels, remakes, Superhero films) and more risky ones (arthouse, original screenplays, etc.).
  • Among this year’s nominees I’ve seen only The Descendants, Moneyball, and The Help, and I wasn’t really impressed with any. I don’t profess to have refined tastes for film, but my favorite movies of the year have been 50/50, The Guard, and Rango. Last year I was pretty obsessed with Winter’s Bone and True Grit.

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