And The Winner Goes To…Oscar Statistics Wrap Up

Our model was right: The King’s Speech won. In this weekend’s Oscar Statistics post, we modeled the chances of each nominated movie. We guessed that the movie most likely to win would be the one which took in about 1/4 of the Most Popular movie of the year, would have no significant roles for actresses, would be a drama, and would star a man at least 40 years old.

Of course, The King’s Speech, which shared all those traits, was the favorite for a variety of other well-known reasons, but we took none of these factors into account; our model was purely statistical.

Specifically, we did not try to predict what the best movie of the year would be, just what would win the Oscar for that category. As all know, the statuette is not awarded entirely for quality, but for political, personal, historical, equability, and other arguments.

The original purpose of our analysis was, however, to examine quality. Was the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences a better judge of quality than the “crowd-sourced” American public? The answer, we think, is probably yes.

Here are the movies for Oscar-winning Best Picture and Highest Grossing for those years when the Oscar winner made less than 25% of the Most Popular movie (recalling that we measured box office gross by hand and with some error).

Movies in which the Best Picture made 25% or less of the Highest Grossing Picture.
Year     Best Picture     Highest Grossing Movie
1940 Rebecca Pinocchio
1942 Mrs. Miniver Bambi
1950 All about Eve Cinderella
1951 An American in Paris Quo Vadis?
1958 Gigi South Pacific
1967 In the Heat of the Night The Jungle Book
1977 Annie Hall Star Wars Ep. IV: A New Hope
1980 Ordinary People Star Wars Ep. V: The Empire Strikes Back
1981 Chariots of Fire Raiders of the Lost Ark
1982 Gandhi ET: The Extra-Terrestrial
1984 Amadeus Ghostbusters
2004 Million Dollar Baby Shrek 2
2005 Crash Star Wars Ep. III: Revenge of the Sith
2007 No Country for Old Men Spider-Man 3
2009 The Hurt Locker Avatar

(First a note: our sources give two difference answers for Gigi; one says the movie made $7.3 million, another says double that. If the truth lies in-between, then Gigi should drop off this list. Since there is some doubt, we do not account for it below.)

Except for Quo Vadis? besting An American in Paris in 1951, every other Highest Grossing Movie could be considered a cartoon, a movie that the whole family could, and probably did, go to, thus boosting the bottom line. Certainly many of the movies in the list were cartoons (hand- or computer-drawn). The rest were cartoonish.

Because of ratings, some of the Oscar-winning movies the whole family could not go to, like Ordinary People, No Country for Old Men, and The Hurt Locker which hurts them in the bottom-line comparison. Even so, there are a distinct differences in the quality between the two columns.

Crash was an example of re-capturing the glory of long-won battles, but surely it was better than the direct-to-film-merchandising of Star Wars Ep. III: Revenge of the Sith. In the Heat of the Night might—for all the right reasons, of course—be overrated, but it was better than the watery version of The Jungle Book.

On the other hand, were Chariots of Fire and Gandhi, with vaguely similar sub-themes of the previous movies, and while also reflecting the Academy’s love of all things British, both better than Raiders of the Lost Ark and ET: The Extra-Terrestrial? Probably; maybe.

Then few older than six would argue Shrek 2 was better than Million Dollar Baby or that Ghostbusters improved upon Amadeus. And we’d have to push that age down a year when comparing Rebecca with Pinocchio, Mrs. Miniver with Bambi, and All about Eve with Cinderella.

However, it is true that this latter three Most Popular movies are good children’s films. So in effect, we are comparing the wrong things. Of course the Oscar winning movie would be better than a movie aimed at a child. But that was the case only into the 1970s, after which the children’s movies had pretensions of being grown-up, culminating in the politically simplistic Avatar.

Now look at the 17 movies which won Oscars were also the Highest Grossing. (This means the Oscar-wining movie had 100% of the take of the Highest Grossing movie. The next lowest percentage for an Oscar-winning movie’s take of the Highest was 85%.)

Movies in which the Best Picture made 90% or more of the Highest Grossing Picture.
Year     Best/Highest Grossing Picture
1929 The Broadway Melody
1934 It Happened One Night
1935 Mutiny on the Bounty
1938 You Can’t Take It with You
1939 Gone with the Wind
1944 Going My Way
1952 The Greatest Show on Earth
1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai
1959 Ben-Hur
1962 Lawrence of Arabia
1965 The Sound of Music
1972 The Godfather
1976 Rocky
1979 Kramer vs. Kramer
1988 Rain Man
1994 Forrest Gump
1997 Titanic
2003 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Two of these were R-rated: The Godfather and Rain Man, which means many sales were not to kids. Two of them involved simple minds, an increasingly popular theme: Rain Man and Forrest Gump. Only one was cartoonish: the endless orc slaughter-fest The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King . Two were with Dustin Hoffman (when he was 42 and 51).

At least three had strong Christian themes: Going My Way, Ben-Hur, and The Sound of Music, but none since 1965. Most of the movies before 1979 are better than the movies which came after.

This is a loose assessment, of course, but since Kramer vs. Kramer movies in this category were goofier, for lack of a better word. It is a wild guess, and therefore likely to be wrong, but perhaps the increase in goofiness reflects the voting members of the Academy paying more attention to the bottom line then they had done previously.


  1. One wrong above. Amadeus was cute and had a nice score, but Ghostbusters was one of the greatest movies of all times.

  2. South Pacific was “cartoonish” but Sound of Music was not? I’m not sure I follow that line of criticism.

    I do agree, however that “Most of the movies before 1979 are better than the movies which came after.”

  3. Doug M

    Sequals usually gross more than the 1st in the series, but are less likely to win awards.

    Godfather II is the notable exception.

    I don’t consider Lord of the Rings: Return of the King to be a sequal, in that the entire trillogy was conceived and shot at the same time. I also think that the academy voters indended to recognise the effort that was the trillogy with that vote.

    I notice an abundance of “small moveies” 80-84 and 04-09. I wonder if there are “elitist” waves that run through Hollywood.

    It seems to me that the higher grossing movies age better than the highly acclaimed movies. If we were to look back 10, 20, and 30 years, would we nominate the same list of movies as those that actually received the nod. I think not. Not that the highest grossing movie would necessarily win, but that those that did win would not still be considered the best movie of that year.

    Since we bring up 1984 — The orignal nominees were…

    The Killing Fields
    A Passage to India
    Places in the Heart
    A Soldier’s Story

    How many of these does anyone remember?

    How about?
    Ghost Busters
    The Terminator
    This is Spinal Tap
    Nightmare on Elm St.
    Karate Kid
    16 Candles
    Once Upon a time in America

  4. I’m continually puzzled that ‘Gigi’ carries a rating of ‘G’ here in Australia. That it comes to a happily romantic end doesn’t negate the fact that, as I wrote in my review, ‘the story is principally about Leslie Caron, seemingly intended to be playing a girl of about sixteen, being groomed by her female relatives to be a whore, and then being made available to a wealthy layabout under contract.’

    Very weird.

  5. John Morris

    To decide if the Best Picture award is useful we have to define the meaning of “Best”. Obviously it isn’t financial success or it would be handed out strictly on the basis of box office or perhaps delayed a year to make it Box Office + Cable + DVD sales. If it is just art snobbery most of the winners wouldn’t have won. But “Best” should really mean just that. The award should go to what is believed to have been the “Best” work Hollywood has produced in the past year. The one film that not only everyone should see but that people will want to see a hundred years from now because it is a great film. And by that metric both box office and the Oscar are poor indicators but Box Office is the better indicator.

    Go pull up‘s inflation adjusted top box office list and tell me that list isn’t a better indicator of quality filmmaking than looking at a list of “Best Picture” winners. Yes there are some real stinkers on that list, but also Blazing Saddles and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, neither of which would ever be awarded an Oscar yet will be watched and loved as long as there are English speaking people. A dozen Disney/Pixar films that will run forever and be released again and again to new generations, and many broke new ground in filmmaking when they were originally made.

    Too many of the “Best” picks when the Academy tried to overrule the marketplace are long forgotten relics consigned to low rated cable channels so when they agree with the market there is no value in their picks and when they disagree they tend to pick films that history consigns to oblivion instead of great movies that for whatever reason didn’t do great box office but grow in stature with time.

  6. suspension of incredulity

    ‘Was the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences a better judge of quality than the “crowd-sourced” American public? ”

    The Academy might be trying to judge quality, but the assumption that the movie going public is voting for quality with their dollars is just too big for me. Whatever quality is. For one thing, the ordinary public pays before they watch the movie, so except for multiple viewings, they are going based on buzz, reviews, trailers, cast, who knows. You could compare the Academy choices to IMDB ratings, although they aren’t a measure of quality either. “like” and “good” aren’t the same thing, even if “don’t like” and “bad” are 😉

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