Academy Awards: Do We Still Watch The Best Pictures?

Editor’s Note: With this article, we welcome the incredibly knowledgeable and talented Adam Charles to the FSR team. He’s decided to start with a very in-depth, insightful article, and we hope that you’ll take a moment to read the entire thing. We also hope that you enjoy reading his work as much as we do.

“Who cares?”

The above quote is the most oft-uttered phrase I hear whenever the Academy Awards makes its way into a conversation, implying that said person probably won’t be watching the ceremony.  I’m intrigued as to the potential reasoning behind the response so I interrogate as to why they feel (at the very most) indifferent to the telecast that’s supposed to honor the best examples the year has offered of the most widely popular form of “art as entertainment” that we have.

“Because, I haven’t seen any of the films that are nominated.”

That seems to be the most common retort.  for as long as I can recall, year in and year out, for the past twenty years or so (at least) the Academy Awards show has been generally a giant advertisement of film titles that the majority of the public didn’t care to see in the theaters; which is a fact that further adds fuel to the fire that movie critics and aficionados are completely out of touch with what kinds of films the general American public want to see.

I’m not so sure.

Before I tread further I should point out that it is indeed a fact that for the past twenty years (at least) the majority of the movie-going public has not been watching the Best Picture nominees during their theatrical run.

When considering what the majority of people are watching in the theaters one need only look at the respective box-office numbers for each given year.  Per capita the average U.S. consumer purchases around 4 to 5 movie tickets in a given year, calculated as the number of tickets sold in a given year compared to the estimated population in the United States in that given year.  It’s basically hovered around that mark for the past 40 years.  So, if a film finished atop the yearly domestic box-office grosses within the top 5 then chances are relatively high that it was seen in the theater by the majority of the movie-going public, a top 10 finish meant that the percentages were still in good favor of that film being seen.

Given the figures of 5 movie tickets purchased per person per year and the top 10 highest grossing films of the year being the most likely candidates for an average filmgoer to have used their 5 tickets to gain admittance to this first decade of the new millennium had a total of 8 of the 55 Best Picture nominees crack the top 10 in terms of box-office gross for its given year. 6 of those cracked the top 5.  Of those 8 in the top 10 only 3 went on to win Best Picture (thus far, as Avatar may win for the ’09 film slate), and 2 of which cracked the top 5 (again, Avatar may increase it by 1).  In other words, roughly once every 2 years did the majority of the general public choose to use 1 of their 5 movie ticket purchases on an eventual Academy Award Best Picture contender for this decade, and only twice thus far this entire decade did the eventual Best Picture winner be easily pointed to as definitely viewed by the majority of the filmgoing public.

I did say “at least the last twenty years” earlier and while the comparative numbers for the 1990s and 1980s are higher than the first 21st century decade they’re still not incredibly significant.  The 1990s had 16 of the 50 Best Picture nominees crack their year’s top 10 box-office, 12 of which cracked the top 5.  Of the 16 nominees 5 went on to win Best Picture, and 4 of those winners cracked the top 5 for their year.  So, whereas in the 2000 decade the average filmgoer saw a Best Picture ‘contender’ roughly once every 2 years, in the 1990s the average filmgoer saw a Best Picture ‘winner’ roughly once every 2 years and saw at least one contender every year.

The 1980s decade is almost completely identical number-wise to the 1990s.  Going further back though, things get increasingly more interesting.

A lot of film buffs, movie critics, industry professionals, and others involved heavily in the film community view the 1970s as the pinnacle of American cinema.  It’s when the landscape of film in terms of content and artistry made its most considerable and lasting changes.  It was the decade when a good deal of our country’s most admired filmmakers made their masterworks, when our most gifted actors gave their greatest performances, and as you’ll see it would mark the last time that the American public consistently watched the films that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences considered the best films of their given year.

Rather than give an entire paragraph description I’ll just let the numbers speak for themselves:

1970 27 21 8 7
1960 33 25 10 7
1950 34 24 9 6
1940 34 20 9 5

The 1970s don’t offer up the most impressive numbers in comparison to prior decades (the 1960s had every single Best Picture winner for the decade crack the top 10 box office), but they’re undoubtedly comparable and the last time that they would be.  Roughly, for these four decades of American film the average American ticket purchaser was more likely to choose to see a Best Picture contender almost once for every two trips to the theater.   Then, when you pile on top that during the 1950s the average number of tickets sold per person annually was around 14 instead of 4 to 5 the likelihood that a person saw a top 10 film increases dramatically.  Think 14 tickets per person per year sounds insane?  Try an average of 27 tickets per person per year during the 1940s, making the likelihood that its numbers shown in the above chart probably apply to the overwhelming majority of ticket purchasers.

The numbers for the 1940s decade are a little less impressive when you consider that for the first four years of the decade there were, like we’ll experience in this year’s Academy telecast, 10 Best Picture nominees each year instead of 5.  So, instead of 50 total Best Picture nominees for the decade and 10 winners the 1940s had 70 nominees and 10 winners.  Still good numbers put up during that time, but percentage-wise it doesn’t compare to the 50’s thru the 70’s, which is what makes the decision to move back to 10 nominees for the 2009 films appear to be masking a bigger issue.

They’re trying to expand the list to hopefully include more of the year’s financially successful movies, whereas in years past the most financially successful films were the year’s best pictures as decided by the AMPAS.  In the 1970s 3 of the Best Picture winners were their year’s most successful at the box-office.  Were they epics like Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and Gladiator? Try Rocky and Kramer vs. Kramer, the other was The Godfather.  Most of the other winners finished in the top 5.

“Because, I haven’t seen ANY of the films that are nominated.”

So, all this data and we get back to the question.  Why are people not choosing to see these best films of the year?  Or, more accurately, why are Academy Award nominated films for Best Picture no longer the most viewed films of the year?

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Adam Charles has been a film fantatic and unhealthily obsessive purchaser of films he's never seen since the late '90s. He's lived in Austin, TX since 1992 and dropped out of college when he realized his full time job would better fund his dvd (now blu-ray) and movie poster addiction than his passion probably ever could. He is nearly out of financial debt, but it's gonna be another decade or so before he catches up on watching everything he's irresponsibly purhcased. He has written in the past for Collider.com and Horrorsnotdead.com, and can be found on twitter as @the_beef - a label he's had since well before Shia LeBeouf was even a sperm and therefore Adam wins.

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