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Why America's Favorite Movies Don't Win Best Picture Oscars

LOS ANGELES ( MainStreet) -- Sorry, Harry Potter fans, but all those hours you spent fashioning a witch costume, playing quidditch on the quad and sitting on line for that midnight show won't help get him and his Hogwarts classmates an Oscar this year.

Warner Bros.' (TWX) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 was the highest-grossing movie in America last year, with a more than $381 million box office haul. When the Academy Awards nominations were announced, Harry and company weren't within a broom's ride of a Best Picture nomination. Same goes for Optimus Prime and the other battling robots in Paramount's (VIA) Transformers: Dark of the Moon ($352 million), Edward and Bella in Summit Entertainment's (LGF) The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn -- Part 1 ($281 million) and a handful of comedic bros who still don't know how to throw a bachelor party in The Hangover Part II ($254 million). In fact you have to get down to the No. 13 movie of 2011 -- Buena Vista's (DIS) The Help and its $170 million haul -- before you reach a Best Picture nominee.
Makers of films such as 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2,' likely always to be frozen out of the major Oscar wins, must console themselves with merely pulling in $381 million at the box office.

This isn't a surprise to anyone disappointed with Hollywood's state of big-budget arrested development or the Academy of Arts and Sciences' insistence on sewing the drapes shut in its ivory tower. Since the Oscars were first handed out in 1929, the most popular movie in the country has won Best Picture a scant 18 times. In the past 40 years, the only box office champions to break through to the Academy voters were The Godfather (1972), Rocky (1974), Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), Rain Man (1988), Forrest Gump (1994), Titanic (1997) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003). That's right, it's been almost a full decade since the last time it happened, and the gulf between popularity and prestige has only widened since.

"It's that eternal tension between art and commerce," says John Farr, movie reviewer and author of home movie review site Best Movies by Farr. "There exists a huge audience out there that doesn't want to think when they go to the movies."

That audience tends to vote with its ticket stubs and popcorn money. Statistician William Briggs pored through the box office receipts and found that, since 1940, 15 Best Picture winners made 25% or less of the haul of that year's highest-grossing pictures. It's happened four times in the past decade: Shrek 2's $441 million crushed Million Dollar Baby's $100 million in 2004, the final Star Wars installment's $380 million dwarfed Crash's $54 million in 2005, Spider-Man 3 trounced No Country For Old Men by $336 million to $74 million, while the record $750 million raked in by 3-D spectacle Avatar in 2009 more than quadrupled The Hurt Locker's $17 million take in its opening weekend alone.
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