LOS ANGELES (
) -- Sorry,
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.
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
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
($352 million), Edward and Bella in
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 --
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
Kramer vs. Kramer
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:
's $441 million crushed
Million Dollar Baby's
$100 million in 2004, the final
installment's $380 million dwarfed
's $54 million in 2005,
No Country For Old Men
by $336 million to $74 million, while the record $750 million raked in by 3-D spectacle
in 2009 more than quadrupled
The Hurt Locker
's $17 million take in its opening weekend alone.
"If this trend continues, in 20 years nobody but Academy members will even have heard of the Best Picture," Briggs said in a pre-Oscars blog post last year. "On the other hand, if the previous 5 Most Popular pictures are any guide --
Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
The Dark Knight
-- the Most Popular movie two decades from now will be targeted at audiences who are still attempting to master pasting and scissoring skills."
This year's Top 10 grossing films bear that out. Among the witches, transforming robots and dudebros were five other sequels (
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
) and the comic-book prequel
. With the exception of the
, much of last year's Top 20 was a CGI blur. It's also exactly what mass-consumption movie audiences wanted to see.
"They want make-believe, effects, explosions, sex -- in short, pure distraction," Farr says. "The movies that cater to this group are often fairly mindless and formulaic."
They also overwhelmingly tend to be action and adventure movies. Briggs notes that only four Best Picture films have ever fit into that genre:
Around the World in 80 Days
in 2000 and
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
in 2003. Conversely, a full 33% of the top-grossing films during that same span have been in the action genre. If you want to win an Oscar, write a drama. That genre has won roughly 56% of all best-picture Oscars while making up only 27% of the top-grossing films of the Oscar era.
Whatever you do, don't make people laugh. Comedies have been named best picture only four times since 1929 and only twice in the past 75 years:
in 1977 and
Shakespeare in Love
in 1998. Considering comedies were 11% of top-grossing films in the past 84 years, the Academy voting panel's a pretty tough room.
"The movies that tend to win Oscars are usually slightly higher-brow," Farr says. "They may have high entertainment value, but are also being judged on excellence in story, script, acting and technique."
This is what "the Oscars are out of touch" people have a hard time with. Even after expanding the Best Picture field to as many as 10 nominees starting in 2009 and including top grosser
that year and box-office beast
Toy Story 3
in 2010, the chances of the most popular film of the year winning haven't changed much, simply because it isn't a personality contest. It's a nod to artistic achievement, to excellence in very specific areas of filmmaking that, when combined, help the entire industry grow. Nominated films don't always have the mass appeal or bandwagon effect of a well-promoted summer blockbuster, but that doesn't stop portions of mainstream American moviegoers from checking them out once the nominations are announced.
"You particularly see the Oscar bump for end-of-year indies, movies not fueled by star power," says movie ticketing site
Editor-in-Chief Chuck Walton. "Moviegoers are more selective these days, and once the competition has been narrowed, they'll take a chance on seeing a movie that's an Oscar winner."
Besides, it's not like the blockbusters are left out altogether. The final
installment looked great and made some fairly sound technical advances that earned it Best Art Direction, Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup Oscar nominations. Even the folks behind the
flicks do two things really right: make huge robot fight scenes that make viewers forget about the wooden acting; and produce booming, thundering sound effects that rattle the walls of the frou-frou drama showing in the multiplex theater next door. The Academy knows this, and nominated
Dark of the Moon
for Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing.
If moviegoers are still steamed their favorite film didn't get an Oscar nod, all we can say is it's not like it didn't get recognized. See that nine-figure dollar amount on that movie's review page under the heading "Box Office." That's its reward, its little multimillion-dollar statuette for producing a movie with broad appeal that will be on store shelves in DVD and Blu-ray format just in time for the holidays.
If you want to see awards for getting people to spend money, may we suggest the People's Choice Awards, the Billboard Music Awards or any other awards show that ties its trophies to sales. The Academy Awards still ask for more, which is why you won't see a statuette in the hands of a comic book hero who fights off off Nazis with just a shield or cross-dressing comedian who thinks playing both genders in a movie that isn't
is terribly clever anytime soon.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.
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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.