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More People Watch the Oscars Than Go to Most Movies

Looking at the box office success of this year’s Academy Award winners, ABC is lucky to have as high viewership for the telecast as they do.
Roma Movie Theater
By  · Published on February 25th, 2019

While most of us were getting ready for and then watching the Oscars, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World was flying to the top of the box office charts, not just for the past weekend but for its franchise. The third of the How to Train Your Dragon movies wound up with a trilogy’s best opening, selling an estimated 6.1 million tickets compared to the original’s debut attendance of 5.5 million and the first sequel’s 5.9 million. The franchise doesn’t have an Oscar yet, but isn’t box office success better than Academy Awards?

On the one hand, money is certainly better than a gold-plated statue, though there’s an unmeasurable given that Oscars help boost ticket sales for winners. We’ll see next Monday if any significant increase in box office gross is felt from Green Book, The Favourite, Bohemian Rhapsody, If Beale Street Could Talk, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Free Solo, or any other honorees. Maybe Alita: Battle Angel, which is falling fast (in the US anyway), could benefit from that Mahershala Ali win. Or people will just wait to watch everything at home.

About 30 million people tuned in to watch the Academy Awards last night, just in the US alone. While that’s still fewer than a third of the eyes watching this year’s relatively low-rated Super Bowl, it’s at least an increase from last year’s rock-bottom viewership. Even with the ceremony’s telecast now ranking as the second-worst of all time in terms of ratings, it’s worth pointing out that 30 million people is more than went to see Best Picture winner Green Book or any of the other 14 honorees, save for Black Panther, which was also last year’s highest-grossing movie domestically.

Here are the domestic ticket sales figures (so far) for this year’s winning movies:

1. Black Panther – 76.3 million
2. Bohemian Rhapsody – 23.6 million
3. A Star is Born – 23.4 million
4. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – 20.5 million
5. Green Book – 7.7 million
6. BlacKkKlansman – 5.5 million
7. Vice – 5.2 million
8. First Man – 5 million
9. The Favourite – 3.6 million
10. Free Solo – 1.8 million
11. If Beale Street Could Talk – 1.6 million
12. Roma – 0.43 million*
13. Oscar-nominated shorts – 0.36 million**

The last two items on that list need notes, of course. Roma, being a Netflix release, has never officially reported any box office figures. The attendance number there is based on IndieWire’s estimate through this past weekend. The Oscar-nominated shorts’ box office combines all three category programs, which themselves each consist of multiple nominees. The total domestic box office attendance for all the movies is about 174.9 million (or 174.5 million without Roma). Divided by 13 releases, that’s an average of 13.5 million tickets sold.

That’s also much better than the previous year. The winners at the 2018 Oscars add up to only 101.1 million tickets sold, with a 7.8 million average — I’m including Netflix’s documentary feature winner Icarus despite there being no data on its Oscar-qualifying run. Yet, this year’s moviegoing for Oscar contenders was hardly the best it’s been in the past decade. I went through the lists of winners of the last 10 Academy Awards, including this year’s, and of course, the year of Avatar, 2010, topped all with 235.1 million tickets sold, averaging 19.6 million per release. The next year, 2011, was also high, with winners’ attendance totaling 196.6 million, with a 17.9 million average.

Other years with better ticket sales than the present include 2013, where Best Picture winner Argo and the rest brought in about 181.9 million people, averaging 15.2 million per, and 2017, which despite having the second-lowest-grossing Best Picture of the time frame, Moonlight, managed a total ticket sales figure of about 198 million. The average there was 15.2 million — that’s if we include ESPN’s lengthy documentary feature winner O.J.: Made in America despite not having any data on its gross or attendance during its brief Oscar-qualifying run.

Here are the years’ totals, averages, and telecast viewership, with Best Picture winners for reference:

2019 (Green Book): 174.9 million (13.5 million avg.)
         – 30 million TV viewers
2018 (The Shape of Water): 101.1 million (7.8 million avg.) 
         – 26.5 million TV viewers
2017 (Moonlight): 198 million (15.2 million avg.)
         – 32.9 million TV viewers
2016 (Spotlight): 141.2 million (10.1 million avg.)
         – 34.4 million TV viewers
2015 (Birdman): 135.1 million (9.7 million avg.)
         – 37.3 million TV viewers
2014 (12 Years a Slave): 118.2 million (11.8 million avg.)
         – 43.7 million TV viewers
2013 (Argo): 181.9 million (15.2 million avg.)
         – 40.3 million TV viewers
2012 (The Artist): 98.7 million (7.6 million)
         – 39.3 million TV viewers
2011 (The King’s Speech): 196.6 million (17.9 million)
         – 37.9 million TV viewers
2010 (The Hurt Locker): 235.1 million (19.6 million)
         – 41.3 million TV viewers

Interestingly enough, had Avengers: Infinity War won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects last night, this year would have the greatest total attendance of all its winners. Instead, First Man took that category and was the second-lowest-grossing movie to win the VFX award of these past 10 years. Ex Machina, which only drew about 3 million people was one of the factors in 2016 being among the lesser years for Oscar-winner moviegoing. This year also had the second-lowest-grossing winner in the Best Animated Feature category (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), coming just ahead of 2012 honoree Rango, which sold just 15.7 million tickets.

This year did have the best-selling Best Documentary Feature winner, Free Solo, and when all is said and done should have the best-selling short films release. Not only did more people watch the Oscars than went to see Green Book, but viewership of the Oscars in these past 10 years has continued to be significantly greater than the attendance of the movie named Best Picture. Why do the Academy and ABC ever think they’ll grow the telecast’s audience when Hollywood can’t grow the theatrical audience?

We can’t ever know what the actual audience size is for any movie outside of theatrical attendance, as that would entail compiling box office, rental, sales, streaming, television, and even bootleg numbers. We don’t even know how many subscribers in the US have watched Roma on Netflix. And even if there’s a box office boost post-Oscars, there’s more likely to be a surge in streams of Roma, Black Panther, and Period. End of Sentence and maybe higher ratings for Free Solo when it debuts on the National Geographic Channel this coming Sunday.

We can hopefully breathe easy knowing that the minor uptick in ratings for the Oscars over last year will keep the Academy from doing anything else too crazy next year. But even instituting the Popular Oscar wouldn’t do that much to increase the millions watching the show. Most of the people who go see likely 2020 Popular Oscar winner The Lion King or Avengers: Endgame this year aren’t interested in the Academy Awards either way. They’ll probably prefer just watching another big mainstream movie during that time.

Anyway, speaking of popular movies, let’s go back to the past weekend’s moviegoing numbers. Here are the top 10 titles by the number of tickets sold with new and newly wide titles in bold and totals in parentheses:

1. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World – 6.1 million (6.4 million)
2. Alita: Battle Angel – 1.3 million (6.7 million)
3. The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part – 1.1 million (9.3 million)
4. Fighting with My Family – 0.9 million (0.9 million)
5. Isn’t It Romantic – 0.8 million (3.7 million)
6. What Men Want – 0.58 million (5 million)
7. Happy Death Day 2U – 0.55 million (2.4 million)
8. Cold Pursuit – 0.37 million (3 million)
9. The Upside – 0.36 million (11 million)
10. Run the Race – 0.25 million (0.3 million)

All non-forecast box office figures via Box Office Mojo.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.