This article was written with the assistance of the very employable John Briggs, who did all the grunt work.
Which is the better movie, the one awarded an Oscar for Best Picture or the Most Popular, defined as the one with that year’s highest box office gross? The former is, ostensibly, chosen by experts, the latter picked by you.
We cannot answer that question, but we can discover some of the differences between Best and Most Popular pictures.
- The Most Popular picture routinely made about twice what the Best Picture took in, and there is good evidence this trend is increasing.
- Many pictures had only men in the lead and no women.
- Women over 40 are rare, and over 50 virtually non-existent, while older men show up increasingly frequently.
- Best Pictures usually had older actors and actresses than the Most Popular movies.
- There were fewer comedies for Oscars, more Action & Adventure for Most Popular flicks.
The Oscars for Best Picture were awarded from 1927/1928 until 2009; 83 years so far. In 1928, there was no Best Picture award, but one called Most Outstanding Production, which was given to a film that ran over 1927 and 1928 (Wings). We included this in the Best Picture category for 1927.
Sixteen of the 83 years, or 19%, found the Best Picture also being the Most Popular. These were movies like The Broadway Melody, It Happened One Night, Gone with the Wind, The Sound of Music, and The Godfather.
We retrieved data on box office grosses from The Numbers and Box Office Mojo, supplemented by IMDB. We could not find data for 11 years, mostly early on. We used total box office take as our main measure. Unfortunately (since we did this by hand) we only have totals including monies made in re-releases, releases which might not have been in the same year the movie was first shown. This limitation should be kept in mind when considering how certain the results are.
The red dots in this picture are those years when the Best Picture was also the Most Popular. For the remaining films, the line is the ratio of box office gross, Best Picture divided by Most Popular, for the two categories. The trend implies the widening divergence between what the Academy and the public thinks is the best movie each year, as voted by wallets.
Up through the 1960s and into the 1970s, the Best Picture took in about half of what the Most Popular picture realized. But that dropped to about a third through 2000, after which the Best Picture only made 20% or less of the Most Populars’ take. For example, in 2006 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest sailed effortlessly past The Departed, and in 2009 Avatar crushed The Hurt Locker.
If this trend continues, in twenty years nobody but Academy members will even have heard of the Best Picture. On the other hand, if the previous 5 Most Popular pictures are any guide—Shrek 2,
Star Wars Ep. III: Revenge of the Sith, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Spider-Man 3, The Dark Knight, Avatar—the Most Popular movie two decades from now will be targeted at audiences who are still attempting to master pasting and scissoring skills.
Men vs. Women
All but one of the Oscars for Best Picture had a leading actor. The only one missing a man in the leading role was the picture All about Eve, starring Bette Davis. Men were in this picture, but only in supporting roles, and not as the male rivals of Miss Davis.
On the other hand, there were 32 years, or 39%, in which no women appeared as leading actress in the film that won the Oscar. Examples of movies without women in a lead role: Mutiny on the Bounty (Clark Gable), Going My Way (Bing Crosby), Patton (George C. Scott), The Godfather (Marlon Brando), The Last Emperor (John Lone).
The same disparity was found in the Most Popular picture. Only one movie did not have a leading actor, and that was the cartoon Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs!
However, plenty of flicks (20, or 24%) made money without leading actresses. Films like The Bridge on the River Kwai (William Holden), The Longest Day (John Wayne), Jaws (Roy Scheider), Back to the Future (Michael J. Fox), Saving Private Ryan (Tom Hanks), and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Elijiah Wood). Several of these films had almost no women at all, let alone one in a leading role. Of course, many of these were war (fictional or otherwise) pictures, so this is not surprising.
The lesson is clear: if you want to save money, don’t hire a leading actress.
Oscar winning men were older than the Most Popular winning men, and likewise for the women. Leading men were also older than leading women. Academy members prefer older men and women; audiences prefer younger.
The median age of Oscar winning men was 38, for the Most Popular it was 35. However, for the years in which the Oscar winning movie was different than the Most Popular, the Oscar winning men were on average 6 years older.
For women, the median age for winning the Oscar was 30, while for the best picture it was 28. For years when the two best pictures were different, Oscar winning women were 5 years older on average.
The frequency of older men in Oscars is increasing. Before 1980, only twice did the Oscar winning movie find men 50 or older: Lionel Barrymore in You Can’t Take It with You and Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady. Since then, there were 7 men older then 50 (but two of these were Clint Eastwood: Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby).
Only once did the Most Popular movie break the 60 year-old mark for men: in 1967 The Jungle Book voiced by Phil Harris, meaning he wasn’t even seen. And the last time the Most Popular actor was older than 50 (51 actually) was in 1988, Rain Man with Dustin Hoffman.
There was only one Oscar winning movie with a leading actress older than 50: Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy. Eight women were at least 40 in Oscar winning movies, e.g. Myrna Loy, Bette Davis, Sandra Bullock. However, half of these were just 40 or 41.
Just three women older than 40 were in the Most Popular picture: Barbara Luddy (47) Lady and the Tramp (a cartoon), Dorothy McGuire (44) Swiss Family Robinson, and Ellen Burstyn (41) The Exorcist. The last of these was way back in 1973!
The old—get it?—adage that once a woman pushes past 40, her chances of appearing in a major motion picture drop precipitously. Men are allowed to age and still be considered worthy of watching.
We categorized movie genres by eye; thus, not all will agree with our classifications. Our categories were: Action Adventure (to include mysteries, horror, sci-fi), Comedy (to include romantic comedy), Drama (to include biopics, war films, westerns), Family (to include cartoons and musicals), and Romance (definitely not comedic).
For example, we put From Here to Eternity as Romance when that could be considered a Drama. And we coded Bing Crosby’s Going My Way as a musical, hence Family, though it could just as easily been classed as a Drama.
Oscar winning movies must have tears! Only four movies (5%), weakly classified as a Comedy, took home Best Pictures: It Happened One Night in 1934, You Can’t Take It with You 1938, Annie Hall in 1977, and Shakespeare in Love in 1998. Note that all of these except for You Can’t Take It with You might also be classed as dramatic romantic comedies.
Again, only four Oscar winning movies were Action & Adventure: Around the World in 80 Days in 1956, Ben-Hur in 1959, Gladiator in 2000, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003. The overlap between drama and action is also obvious.
By far the largest category of winning movies was Drama at 56%, with Romance coming in second at 21% and Family at 13%.
Action & Adventure was the most common genre for the Most Popular pictures, at 33%. Dramas were 27%, Family 16%, Romance at 13%, and Comedy at about 11%. The Comedies in this category differ not only in frequency, but in content. Winners include Blazing Saddles in 1974, 3 Men and a Baby in 1987, Shrek 2 in 2004.
Who Wins On Sunday?
The top grossing movie for 2010 was Toy Story 3. Both Tom Hanks and Tim Allen were older than 50 (54 and 55 respectively), but this was a cartoon where the men’s faces could not be seen.
Based on our results, we pick the The King’s Speech with Coin Firth to win this year’s Best Picture Oscar. It took in about 1/4 of what Toy Story 3 did, which is in line with the trend, and it features two men with women only in peripheral roles. The category is clearly Drama, and Firth is 50, a preferred age.
This picture best matches our data and the trends we have seen. Our guess of the probability of winning is 80%, with the remaining probability split between the remaining films, but most of the going to The Fighter for similar reasons.
Please pass this article on to movie lovers!