'1917' Could Be the Highest-Grossing Best Picture Winner in Over a Decade

If the World War I movie has another strong week, it could pass 'Argo' to become the most successful Oscar favorite since 'The Departed.'

1917
Universal Pictures

Fittingly, as Super Bowl LIV was held in Miami, the city’s signature action franchise won the box office for the third weekend in a row. Bad Boys for Life is now officially the best January release of all time, while newcomer The Rhythm Section severely underperformed compared to expectations, breaking the record for worst opening ever for a movie released on 3,000 screens or more. Fellow new release Gretel & Hansel did better, overperforming a bit and exceeding its budget, which is impressive for such an artsy horror film cheesily based on a familiar fairytale that didn’t exactly impress many moviegoers.

But as we enter the final week leading up to the 2020 Oscars, the main story I’m interested in concerns the Best Picture nominees. This year marks the earliest Academy Awards ceremony since 2015, and it’s actually the earliest ceremony ever by almost two weeks. As such, we have a rare moment when two of the Oscar nominees for Best Picture are still in the box office top 10 the weekend ahead of the telecast, which also happened in the recent years 2017, 2015, and 2013. But this time, one of them placed second, which I don’t think has ever happened, and it just so happens to be the current frontrunner.

While 1917 is not the highest-grossing of this year’s nine Best Picture contenders — it’s only the fourth — the World War I movie is the current box office champ among them. And all of them (even Netflix’s The Irishman and Marriage Story, which continue playing at NYC’s Paris Theater) are presently screening somewhere. With an estimated current domestic gross of $119 million, the Sam Mendes-helmed single-shot-style film, if crowned the winner next weekend, will have the highest figure one week ahead of the awards since Argo in 2013. And it’s close enough that if 1917 makes another $21 million over this next week (as it did last week), the movie could actually become the highest-grossing Best Picture at the time of its win (without inflation adjustment) since The Departed in 2007.

Fans are still hoping that Parasite winds up winning Best Picture on Sunday, which would be the year’s eighth-lowest-grossing nominee at the time of the ceremony. The film would make history as the first foreign-language film ever to win the top Oscar. It’d also make history as one of the lowest-grossing Best Picture winners, joining such recent honorees as The Hurt Locker, Moonlight, and Birdman, plus classics (adjusted for inflation) like the 1948 version of Hamlet and the 1949 version of All the King’s Men. This week, Parasite did at least place third of the Best Picture nominees (Little Women was second), ranking sixth of Oscar nominees in release and 14th overall for the weekend.

In other Oscar-nominee box office news, the theatrical release of the short film contenders grossed $1.1 million over the weekend, which is the best opening for the compiled programs of the three categories, which usually debut under a million. But they’re also in 200 more locations this year, so the per-screen average is lower than last year’s. Hopefully, more of the money is coming from the excellent animated crop than the mixed-bag live-action bunch. I know it’s not the documentaries, since fewer theaters carry them, unfortunately (the nominees there aren’t the best anyway, and most can be watched online).

As a final note, to leave as I started, with acknowledgment of the Super Bowl, last night’s game was expected to be seen by about 100 million viewers, domestically. That’s more people than went to see the highest-grossing movie of 2019 (which is also the highest-grossing Oscar nominee), Avengers: Endgame, in US theaters. That Marvel blockbuster sold roughly 93.7 million tickets domestically over its five-month run. Next Sunday, the Academy Awards will likely be watched by less than a third of that number, somewhere under the 30-million norm. And if there aren’t any major surprises and 1917 does win Best Picture, a lot of movie fans won’t care either way how well the Oscars do.

Christopher began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called 'Read,' back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials.