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Oscar's Hit Parade

Where did this year's cream of the crop weigh in? A la The Fighter, let's assign the Best Pic contenders a class and rate the blows to the box office.

Oscar Statuettes


Let's test your memory. Do you recall those annual articles that popped up every single year decrying “The Academy is Out of Touch!” because of neglected blockbusters? No? Well, neither does the media. This year's Best Picture lineup is quite a popular field, but nobody is congratulating the Academy voters by writing reversal articles like “The Academy is Totally Relevant Again!” Sometimes you have to feel for the Academy. The truth is that people just like to complain.
Journalists lazily hit that "Out of Touch!" button each and every January until just recently. The hostility peaked two years ago when The Dark Knight (2008) and the classic Pixar WALL•E (2008) both performed spectacularly with audiences and critics, but were left out of Best Picture in favor of traditional Oscar bait like political biopics and Holocaust movies.


The very next year, the Academy announced they were returning to the 10-nominee format, which hadn't been used since the early 1940s. The common perception was that they were doing it to give blockbusters a better chance, even though blockbusters have always been part of the Oscars. We were all just experiencing collective amnesia after a short drought of big hits.
Average Gross of Best Picture Nominee Field
2001 (The year of A Beautiful Mind) $123 million
2002 (The year of Chicago) $132 million
2003 (The year of The Lord of The Rings) $145 million
2004 (The year of Million Dollar Baby) $80 million
2005 (The year of Crash) $49 million
2006 (The year of The Departed) $59 million
2007 (The year of No Country For Old Men)  $71 million
2008 (The year of Slumdog Millionaire) $70 million
*The switch to ten nominees*
2009 (The year of The Hurt Locker) $170 million
2010 (The year of ???) $126 million (at the time of this writing)


As you can see here in snapshot format, once they switched to ten nominees, the average gross rose dramatically. But going a little further back, you'll see that it hasn't actually changed all that much; Oscar has always voted for popular films which also, and here is the key point, were serious-minded "artistic" efforts. It’s just that for a few consecutive years, there weren’t enough of those films available. All things are cyclical, and the public and the Oscars appear to be sharing tubs of popcorn again.


How well did this year's cream of the crop perform individually? In honor of The Fighter, we’ll put them in boxing weight classes.


Winter's Bone: Jennifer Lawrence & John Hawkes


10. WINTER'S BONE $6.3 million (now on DVD)


Six million may be spare change to Hollywood’s Power Players, but for a tiny indie with no stars from a small distributor (Roadside Attractions), six million is a perfectly respectable, even major, take. What’s more, the film had real legs playing for months in theaters, indicating that the people who saw it told their friends to queue up.


127 hours


09. 127 HOURS $15.6 million and rising
08. THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT $20.8 million (now on DVD)


These two films—the one-man true survival story and the lesbian family comedy—are the only entries that are sometimes regarded as underperformers. After the Sundance debut huzzahs and sales war for Kids and the deafening prerelease buzz for 127 Hours in the fall, many pundits were expecting them to break out in a bigger way. Who can say why they didn’t exactly?
But it’s worth noting that not breaking out on the level that, say, Precious, did last year ($47 million gross), is not the same as failing. 127 isn’t profitable yet, but it’s still in theaters, and Kids quintupled its budget while still in theaters. Many films should be so lucky.


the king's speech


07. THE FIGHTER $82.4 million and rising
06. THE KING'S SPEECH $83.5 million and rising
05. BLACK SWAN $95.8 million and rising
04. THE SOCIAL NETWORK $96.3 million (now on DVD)


With a production budget of only $13 million, Black Swan is the most profitable film in this class. If they gave Oscars for ad campaigns, it would deserve the golden boy: Fox Searchlight turned Darren Aronofsky’s risky downright weird psycho ballerina movie into a must-see event. It’s now his biggest hit by a huge margin. (He’s set to direct the superhero sequel The Wolverine (2012) next, with Hugh Jackman, so this distinction probably won’t last.)
None of these films are quite blockbusters, in the traditional sense, but they’re very sizable hits. The most shocking gross here belongs to The King’s Speech, which isn’t remotely finished at the box office. Let’s get this straight: $83+ million for a British royals period piece?!? The Queen (2006) only managed $56 million in its year, and that was considered a strong take for the genre.
When it was first suggested that The King’s Speech might win the Oscar, robbing The Social Network of its long-held “Film of the Year” status, some pundits cried “Out of touch” again, but it didn’t catch on. Surprise: the public loves this one as much as the Academy. How else to explain its considerable success?


True Grit


03. TRUE GRIT $154 million and rising


The box office success of this film has been a talking point since Christmas. The Coen Bros have been building a loyal fanbase for two decades, and they have their first true smash with this throwback western. It’s already doubled the gross of their previous biggest success, the best picture winner No Country For Old Men (2007).


Best in Show: Tom Hardy in Inception


02. INCEPTION $292.5 million (now on DVD)
01. TOY STORY 3 $415 million (now on DVD)

Inception won “must see” status instantly after opening, and despite being brainier than traditional visual effects events, it performed spectacularly. It’s the only true original in the top ten hits of the year, as everything else is based on preexisting material or a regular old sequel.
Finally, since Pixar started their never-ending hit parade with their debut Toy Story (1995), it makes beautiful narrative sense that their biggest hit—and the biggest hit of the entire year—is the culmination of that series. It will be to Pixar historically what The Lion King (2004) was to Disney. It won’t ever be surpassed.


toy story 3
Toy Story 3 is also the third animated film ever nominated for Best Picture, after (1991) and Beauty and the Beast and Up (2008), and the third third sequel to be Best Picture-nominated, after The Godfather Part III (1990) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003). Good company to be in, right?
And as for the Best Picture Nominees of 2010: they’re also fine company according to the media, the public and the Academy. This year’s Oscar contenders won the whole trifecta.   


Nathaniel Rogers blogs on The Film Experience. He is also a bit of an Oscar savant.


More in Tribeca's 2011 Oscar watch:
Oscar 2010: The Final Lap
Oscar Talking Points
The Winner's Speech
Wizards of Oscars
Ballots Are Out and the Heat Is On
Is Oscar Age-ist Re: Best Actress
12 Hungry Films; Only Room for 10
The Spirits vs. The Oscars
Too Many Screeners, Not Enough Turkey
Awards Season Begins

2010 Oscar Doc Shortlist: 15 Films


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