In 1944, the year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences settled on five best picture nominees (replacing 10, which replaced 12, which replaced seven, which replaced five), the year's biggest box office hit, Going My Way, starring Bing Crosby, won the Oscar for best picture. The Academy's picture was also the people's picture.
That perfect storm has happened roughly 14 times since -- most recently in 2003 with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King -- but overall there's been a divide between what the Academy nominates and what Americans watch. This divide has actually been less gradual than sudden. In fact, you can point to two cultural moments when the chasm between the Academy and box office suddenly widened.
Let's check out the stats. The following is a decade-by-decade listing of no. 1 annual box office hits that were also nominated best picture:
From 1950 to 1979, in other words, the most popular film of the year was almost always nominated best picture. In the three decades since? The reverse. Since 1983, it's only happened five times: Rain Man in 1988, Forrest Gump in 1994, Titanic in 1997, Saving Private Ryan in 1998 and Rings in 2003.
Most of us are familiar with the first cultural moment: How, in the late 1970s, Jaws and Star Wars ushered in the era of the blockbuster and their never-ending sequels; how the major studios were bought by conglomerates whose sole concern was the bottom line; how independents took up the slack for serious films until most best picture nominees today are produced outside the studio system, and distributed, by the studios, in parsimonious fashion.
What isn't so familiar is how bad it's gotten in this decade. Let's widen the parameters. How rare is it when at least one of the best picture nominees isn't among the year's top 10 box office hits? Since 1944, it's happened only five times: 1947, 1984...and the last three years in a row: 2004, 2005, 2006. What was once a rarity has now become routine.
These recent nominees aren't even close. Except for The Departed, which finished 15th in box office grosses in 2006, every best picture nominee from the last three years has finished out of the top 20. More than half finished out of the top 50. As recently as 2000, every best picture nominee landed in the top 50: Gladiator (4), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (12), Erin Brockovich (13), Traffic (15) and even Chocolat (32). Last year? Only The Departed. The others wandered in the box office wilderness: Little Miss Sunshine (51), The Queen (57), Babel (91) and, way, way out there, Letters from Iwo Jima (138).
The Academy Award nominees for best picture, far from reflecting a kind of national cinema, something we're all aware of and can enjoy and reference, have become a smaller niche market than horror films or urban comedies.
TOMORROW: Part II: Why it got bad this decade.