Hit movies rarely go on to become Oscar best picture winners, reflecting a difference in taste between moviegoers and film industry professionals. In the past 30 years, only four movies were named best picture while topping box office charts.
Ranking of Top-Grossing Movies Domestically and Best Picture Winners
Note: Adjusted for inflation. Years indicate when the movie was released. | Sources: Box Office Mojo, the Academy Awards Database
From 1980 to 2003, nearly all the winners of the Academy Award for best picture were among the 20 top-grossing films of the year. But since 2004, the gap between the preferences of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters and the American public has widened considerably. Only three best picture winners have been in the top 20 — and none have been in the top 10. (All box office figures are domestic gross totals adjusted for inflation.)
“The Oscars aren’t just about the most popular movie,” said Jonathan Kuntz, film historian and lecturer at the U.C.L.A. School of Theater, Film and Television. Instead of mass appeal, the best picture award recognizes intangible qualities such as originality, technical innovation, cultural significance and artistic value.
Top-Grossing Movies Domestically by Box Office Earnings
Note: Dollar amounts are adjusted for inflation and represent earnings up to March 2, 2018. | Sources: Box Office Mojo, the Academy Awards Database
The last movie to win best picture while topping that year’s box office was “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” in 2003. Since 1980, only three other best picture winners have reached No. 1 at the box office: “Titanic” (1997), “Forrest Gump” (1994) and “Rain Man” (1988).
More and more, the academy favors less-seen underdog titles, and veers away from the mainstream.
“The Academy Award has always been, since the early days, Hollywood’s way of helping itself in promoting films,” said Mr. Kuntz, explaining why lower-grossing art house films are often favored. “The value of an Oscar to a medium or small film can be great, whereas to a large film, it can be insignificant.”
In one of the biggest Oscars upsets, “The Hurt Locker,” a low-budget film about the Iraq war released in 2009, won best picture, snubbing the blockbuster “Avatar,” which broke the record for highest-grossing film worldwide.
Total Domestic Gross: $860,381,000
The Hurt Locker
Total Domestic Gross: $20,133,600
20th Century Fox, Summit Entertainment
In 2015, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” the first live-action “Star Wars” movie since 2005, opened with enormous success, smashing multiple box office records. The film took in $970 million domestically, and more than $1 billion internationally. But “Spotlight,” which tells the story of a team of investigative journalists at The Boston Globe, won best picture. It took in only $47 million domestically — less than 5 percent of the revenue of the year’s biggest film.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Total Domestic Gross $969,792,400
Total Domestic Gross: $46,718,500
David James/Disney/Lucasfilm, via Associated Press, Kerry Hayes/Open Road Films
“They want to reward new people and new ideas,” said Mr. Kuntz, which is why best picture rarely goes to reboots or sequels. The first “Star Wars” movie, “A New Hope” (1977), was nominated for best picture, but did not win. The “Star Wars” franchise has enjoyed enormous commercial success since then, but Mr. Kuntz doubted that academy voters would pick a “Star Wars” film for best picture.
It has also been difficult for genre films to win the top Oscar.
Science fiction and fantasy films often miss out on awards for not being serious or important enough for Oscar voters. The extraordinarily popular sci-fi movie “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982), which arguably hit a lot of the right marks for best picture, lost to the historical biopic “Gandhi.”
“The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (2003) is one of the few fantasy movies, and one of few sequels, to win best picture. “In 2001, when the first movie was nominated,” Mr. Kuntz said, “it was considered a major achievement.” He suspects that the reason it took three films for the academy to recognize the trilogy was because of its genre.
Superhero movies suffer a similar fate; One has never been nominated for the top prize at the Academy Awards. “When they first came to motion pictures in the ’60s,” Mr. Kuntz said, “superhero movies were cheesy and campy.”
But opportunities expanded for these movies when “The Dark Knight” (2008), a Batman movie that thrilled critics and audiences alike, was denied a best picture nomination. This omission led the academy to double the number of best picture nominations — to a maximum of 10, from five — in hopes that more popular films of different genres could be included.
Animated movies, which can bear the stigma of being just for children, have also never won best picture. “Beauty and the Beast” (1991), a major achievement for its time, was the first animated movie to be nominated for best picture, but did not win. Only two other animated movies, “Up” (2009) and “Toy Story 3” (2010), have been nominated for best picture.
The academy added an award for best animated feature in 2001 in recognition of the success and innovation in the genre. “They are not just cartoons,” Mr. Kuntz said. “They are artistic triumphs and they appeal to all ages.”
Heading into Sunday’s ceremony, experts predict the best picture winner will be either “The Shape of Water” or “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Together, these two films made $104 million in domestic ticket sales, 17 percent of 2017’s highest-grossing film, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”