There isn't an Academy Awards Best Picture nominee among the five top-grossing films of the year, and that's actually a bit unusual.
It's typically about par for the Academy to leave top-grossing films out of Best Picture contention, but the last few years have tweaked that notion a bit. In 2014, the highest-grossing film in the land -- American Sniper and its $350 million take -- found itself among the Best Picture crowd. In 2013, Alfonso Cuaron's visually immersive Gravity took in more than $200 million in the U.S. alone and cracked the Top 5 at year's end.
However, as we mentioned before, there's typically a huge disparity between the Best Picture nominees and those at the top of the box office earning list or on the guest list at the People's Choice Awards. Since the Oscars were first handed out in 1929, the most popular movie in the country has won Best Picture just 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 more than a decade since the last time it happened and the gap hasn't closed much since.
Statistician William Briggs checked box office receipts and found that, since 1940, 17 Best Picture winners made 25% or less of the haul of that year's highest-grossing pictures. It's happened six times in the past decade: Shrek 2's $441 million overshadowed Million Dollar Baby's $100 million in 2004, the final Star Wars prequel 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. In 2011, the $381 million made by Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone blew away the scant $44 million made by black-and-white, silent Best Picture winner The Artist. The $135 million made in the U.S. by 2012 Best Picture winner Argo was nowhere close to that year's top-grossing superhero hit The Avengers, which took in a whopping $623 million stateside. Much as 12 Years A Slave's $56.7 million was dwarfed by Hunger Games: Catching Fire's $424.7 million and Birdman's $42.3 million didn't stack up to American Sniper's take, this year's canyon between top earners and Best Picture looks just as vast.
To give you some idea of the real estate separating Best Picture nominees from box office reality, we've listed the Top 8 highest-grossing films of 2015 and paired them with a corresponding Best Picture nominee. To illustrate just how broad the spectrum was last year, the top-grossing film's take was 90 times that of the lowest-grossing Best Picture nominee. Here are even more examples of the growing divide between moviegoing Americans:
8. The Martian
Studio: 20th Century Fox
2015 U.S. box office take: $227.9 million
Oscar No. 8. Room
2015 U.S. box office take: $9.9 million
The Matt Damon-led adaptation of Andy Weir's 2011 book is the only Best Picture nominee to crack the Top 8, but it still isn't exactly indicative of Oscar's populism.
This Ridley Scott production only made a quarter of the No. 1 film's box office take despite packing the cast with Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels and Kate Mara. Even if you throw its total box office take in with those of the other Best Picture nominees, that $589.1 million would have only been good enough for third place in 2015.
The divide only widens when you consider that the counterpart to NASA's “leave no man behind” story involves a woman being raped on a daily basis and confined with her son to a shed by her ex husband. Yes, the “room” in this Irish-Canadian drama is not only this woman's personal hell, but the wall between her son and the outside world. It's Netflix's The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt with exactly none of the humor and far more dire consequences for Brie Larson's protagonist. It also isn't the last time the Academy gives filmmakers kudos for putting women and children in serious jeopardy this year.
7. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2
Studio: Lions Gate Entertainment
2016 U.S. box office take: $280.7 million
Oscar No. 7. Brooklyn
Studio: Fox Searchlight
2016 U.S. box office take: $30.6 million
Hey, that dystopian young-adult film series based on the books is over! No, not the Divergent series. No, not the Maze Runner films.
Yep, that one where Jennifer Lawrence (ages 21 through 25) has played Katniss Everdeen (age 16-17) since 2012. Yes, the one that seemed a whole lot like The Running Man and Battle Royale. Yes, that one that made nearly $1.5 billion at the U.S. box office, but still finished third to the Harry Potter and Twilight series. Yes, the one that Lawrence seemingly checked out of years ago to become David O. Russell's go-to female lead and rack up the hardware before her 26th birthday. Sorry, Hunger Games, but the Oscar odds weren't in your favor for a long time, if ever.
Meanwhile, one of Lawrence's toughest competitor's for this year's Best Actress award is Brooklyn's Saorise Ronan for her portrayal of a young Irish emigre in 1950s New York who finds herself pulled between her old home and her new digs in Brooklyn. Granted, there seem to be plenty of more current stories from the broad U.S. immigrant community to share, but this is the one that Colm Tobin wrote and Nick Hornby was hired to adapt, so why not let About A Boy guy do his thing?
2016 U.S. box office take: $336 million
Oscar No. 6. Spotlight
Studio: Open Road Films
2016 U.S. box office take: $34.9 million
Did you like the Despicable Me movies, but hate all the dialogue, human interaction and screen time not dedicated to walking merchandise? Well, Minions does away with much of that by filling this prequel with lots of sweet Minion back story while letting Jon Hamm, Sandra Bullock, Michael Keaton and others serve as cogs in the machine.
Yep, this film put a lot of the G-rated demographic in the seats and sent a whole lot of bright-yellow, Tic Tac-shaped toys home with them. It also was a nice paycheck for Keaton, who reserved his heaviest lifting for his time as Walter Robinson, head of the Boston Globe's investigative journalism team that brought the sex abuse scandal within the Catholic Church to light and took down Cardinal Bernard Law, the Archbishop of Boston.
More a peek inside the sausage making of investigative journalism and the importance of a newsroom's contribution to a story than a tense thriller or outright indictment of Catholicism, Spotlight is film's love letter to the newspaper during a tough time for both. Spotlight manages to show each medium at the peak of its powers, but also serves as a reminder of just how much more important each was to us as recently as 2002.
5. Furious 7
2016 U.S. box office take: $353 million
Oscar No. 5. The Big Short
2016 U.S. box office take: $61.2 million
The first Furious film since Paul Walker's passing came packed with everything its core audience looks for: Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, fast cars, ridiculous explosions and a spring release date that stretched into a midsummer run.
Much as the Academy's followers may not want to admit it, the Furious movies are a permanent and much-needed fixture on the cinematic landscape. Much as a traveler knows which chain restaurants meet his or her minimal acceptable threshold for food quality or a wine or beer drinker knows brands with a minimal acceptable threshold for flavor on tight wine and beer lists, action movie fans know that the Furious franchise is going to meet their baseline needs and continue adapting to bolster the proven track record.
Meanwhile, Oscar didn't get a hard enough look at the financial industry's more duplicitous dealings in The Wolf Of Wall Street, so it gave Old School director Adam McKay's look at Michael Lewis's book about making huge profits off of collapsing the housing market and the economy through credit default swaps, but feeling really bad about it. By assembling a finance-bro-approved cast of Christian Bale (Batman!), Brad Pitt (Tyler Durden!), Ryan Gosling (Drive!) and Steve Carell (Michael Scott!), McKay and company send home the very valuable lesson that it's O.K. to tank the entire economic system and cost a whole lot of people their jobs and life savings for your personal gain if you come across as super remorseful, write a book about it that makes you even more money, sell the rights to that book for even more and then never, ever serve a day in prison for any of it.
4. Inside Out
2016 U.S. box office take: $356.5 million
Oscar No. 4. Bridge Of Spies
Studio: Walt Disney
2016 U.S. box office take: $71 million
Boy, did Disney really cover all of its bases with these films.
With Inside Out you get some incredibly colorful emotional manipulation voiced by Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Lewis Black and Mindy Kaling (oh, and Phillis from The Office) for the kids, while Bridge of Spies provides a tense Cold War drama pairing Tom Hanks and Stephen Spielberg for their grandparents.
At this stage in its existence, Pixar exists solely as a contest based around which film can make the most grown ups cry. From the outset, Inside Out makes no bones about trying to punch you right in the inner child and manages to pull just about every latent emotional trigger it can without going too dark for its rating. It's really cruel, but it was also really effective. As for Bridge of Spies, it furthers Tom Hanks's role as his generation's Jimmy Stewart even as the nation is just one NBC cancellation of It's A Wonderful Life away from forgetting who that is. Know that relative at the Thanksgiving table this year who kept raving about Vladimir Putin and what “they” in Russia are capable of? This is the movie he saw instead of Star Wars.
3. Avengers: Age Of Ultron
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
2016 U.S. box office take: $459 million
Oscar No. 3. The Revenant
Studio: 20th Century Fox
2016 U.S. box office take: $139.5 million
Huh. We didn't think we'd see it, but this list contains just one superhero movie this year.
Honestly, it wasn't all that great a year for the folks in spandex. Marvel's other big entry, Ant Man made a whopping $180 million, but led a list of comic-book also rans that included Kingsman: The Secret Service,Fantastic Four ($56 million) and... well, nothing else really worth mentioning. Marvel actually had a more impressive year on Netflix, with Jessica Jones and Daredevil both outperforming expectations. However, with Captain America taking on Iron Man and Superman squaring off against Batman this year, the superheroes may just be taking some time off to enjoy some rare anonymity.
As for The Revenant and Leonardo DiCaprio, well, he's been plagued his entire career by starring in outstanding films whose supports casts act circles around him. With no one in his way during this production but Thomas Hardy and a bear, maybe this is his year.
2. Jurassic World
2016 U.S. box office take: $652.2 million
Oscar No. 2. Mad Max: Fury Road
Studio: Warner Brothers
2016 U.S. box office take: $153.6 million
Charlize Theron couldn't get an Oscar nod for her incredible work as Imperator Furiosa, but why should one of the strongest female characters to appear in film this year be recognized if nobody's going to give Bryce Dallas Howard a trophy for sprinting away from a Tyrannosaurus Rex while wearing high heels?
Here we have two examples of series revived after a long dormancy and, boy, did each of these take really different turns. Where Jurassic World served as a high-definition homage to 1993's Jurassic Park that gave audiences a whole lot of computer-generated treats to chew on (pterodactyls with tyrannosaur heads, a giant monster T-Rex hybrid and even bigger Mosasaurus. If the Indominus Rex that serves as the film's baddest beast is a symbol of consumerism run amok, Jurassic World wrings out every dollar by bringing the rest of the proceedings down to I-Rex level.
Though original director Stephen Spielberg had little to do with the latest Jurassic installment, Mad Max creator George Miller had his fingerprints all over this film that's been in one form of production or another since 1997. Keeping in mind that we hadn't seen a Mad Max film since 1985, Miller packed his story of survival, societal fragility and, ultimately, women's rights in the face of pursuing, unrelenting male opposition with enough stunts, explosions, practical effects and post-apocalyptic nightmare carts to make the rest of the series almost irrelevant. Mad Max's clean slate let Miller pin his wildest action film dreams to his title character's sinewy frame. With so much packed into this film already, there was little room for nostalgia.
1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
2016 U.S. box office take: $896.5 million
Oscar No. 1. The Martian
Studio: 20th Century Fox
2016 U.S. box office take: $227.9 million
O.K., so maybe this isn't so far off the mark.
Think about it: a hero stranded on a sandy planet hoping for a way out, a seemingly uncaring empire with that hero's fate in its hands... never mind, this isn't working. We had an idea that Star Wars would get the nod for some of the technical categories -- and it did -- but all the surroundingStar Wars nostalgia got us thinking back to when the first installment hit theaters in 1977 and resulted in a slew of Academy Award nominations.
That The Force Awakens didn't get the Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay and Best Director nomination that its predecessor did (and didn't score so much as one Alec Guinness-style supporting actor nomination) says more about how the series has changed than about how the Academy has. When Lucas introduced Star Wars, despite drawing heavily from Westerns and samurai films, he was introducing something like no one had ever seen before. Now, a universe of characters and settings where all of the elements interact fluidly is just the foundation of any series of blockbusters. Peter Jackson had prepared source material to work with in The Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit series, but he took epic cues from Star Wars. Now, Marvel and DC use the same approach for the installments of their superhero films.
Unfortunately, with Mad Max as an exception, sci-fi or fantasy movie franchises are more often tempted to tamp down on the writing and keep things broad instead of producing a story worthy of the Academy (or anyone else's) consideration. The lightsabers, the spaceships, the frills and the memory remains, but a bit of the magic gets lost with each new installment.