10 Lowest-Grossing Oscars Best Picture Winners of All Time

NEW YORK (MainStreet) – Oscars for Best Picture typically don't go to Hollywood's biggest blockbusters for the same reason vampire novels don't win the Pulitzer: Popularity doesn't equate to quality.

This year's eight nominees for Best Picture have averaged little more than $70 million per film. That ranges from nearly $300 million for American Sniper to about $9.6 million for Whiplash. Compare that with the five-film field for Best Visual Effects and its more than $244 million average. In that equation, Disney's (DIS) superhero epic Guardians Of The Galaxy and its $333 million tops the list, while the more heavy-handed Interstellar ($187 million) brings up the rear.

You have to go back to 2003 to find the last top-grossing U.S. film to win Best Picture. That year, Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King took home the Oscar not for bringing in more than $377 million in the U.S., but for capping off an epic trilogy that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was honoring all at once. The last blockbuster to pull off that feat without help from a broader series of films was Titanic, which made more than $600 million in 1997 on its way to a Best Picture win.

John Farr, a movie reviewer for The Huffington Post and founder of Best Movies By Farr — a site that reviews classic, independent and foreign films while aggregating streaming options for each film reviewed — notes that blockbusters, by their nature, typically aren't built to win Best Picture.

“There really isn't a consistent correlation between a movie you can consistently define as 'great' on a timeless and enduring level and the box office,” Farr says. “Some of the movies that make big money are just diverting. They're just entertaining for a certain, very broad audience.”

Blockbuster and Best Picture films weren't always so mutually exclusive. Back in 1988, Rain Man topped that year's U.S. box office list by taking in nearly $173 million (or more than $346 million today) despite having an R rating and featuring nothing flashier than Tom Cruise taking his autistic brother (played by Dustin Hoffman) on a road trip. That year, according to the National Association of Theater Owners, nine of the Top 20 films in the U.S. were rated R, down from a dozen the year before but still before a record high 14 in 1992. Also during 1998, only three of the Top 20 films were rated PG-13.

By 1998, a year after PG-13 Forrest Gump won Best Picture and dominated U.S. box offices with a nearly $330 million take (more than $527 million today), nine of the Top 20 movies were PG-13, while only five were rated R. From 2000 to 2012, PG-13 films would make up 50% or more of the Top 20 movies in the U.S. every year except 2009 (eight) and 2010 (five). During that same span, their R-rated counterparts made up just five of the Top 20 in their best years and couldn't crack the Top 20 at all in 2002, when PG-13 Chicago won Best Picture.

“Hollywood is about making huge movies that will travel and will reach and attract the broadest possible audience globally,” Farr says. “Unfortunately, that doesn't translate to what you or I would consider enduring, quality film. The notion that there's a correlation between box office take and the top films of the years doesn't hold.”

That's creating a huge divide between the Academy's definition of the “best” films and what the moviegoing public deems the most popular. In 2005, when the $380 million Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith was the biggest film in the land and a five-film Best Picture field averaged just $49.1 million per film, Crash won Best Picture and finished with a box office take of just $54.6 million. In 2007, when Spider-Man and Transformers films each topped $300 million domestically, No Country For Old Men won with little more than $74 million in box office earnings.

”It drives me nuts that these small movies that are great movies that would have been mainstream films 20, 30 or 40 years ago are now eclipsed by comic-book titles,” Farr says. “But that's the business right now.”

While American Sniper has cracked the Top 3 among films released in 2014, its fellow Best Picture contenders come nowhere near that mark. As a result, there's a strong chance that this year's Best Picture winner will end up on or just below these following films, which are the lowest-grossing Best Picture winners in Oscars history. 

10. 12 Years A Slave
Year released: 2013
U.S. box office gross: $56,671,993
Adjusted for inflation: $57,591,319

Things U.S. moviegoers decided they'd rather see than Steve McQueen's take on Solomon Northup's hard-hitting biography that placed a harsh spotlight on the country's history of slavery: A teen forced to compete in a young-adult-fiction version of The Running Man, a drunken billionaire flying around in heavily weaponized armor and a dark Norwegian fairy tale retold with a talking snowman and showtunes.

12 Years A Slave went on to win three Academy Awards in total, despite a U.S. box office take just slightly more than that of the middling animated feature Free Birds. Think it didn't make certain moviegoers just a bit uncomfortable? Consider that in the rest of the world, 12 Years A Slave made more than $150 million — or roughly three times what it made back home, where people are still “getting around” to seeing it.

“Ultimately, whatever brings the good stuff to people is what I care about,” Farr says. “The funny thing is that in the movie industry, unlike other industries, it doesn't follow that if something is the best in quality gets the most attention.”

9. Gigi
Year released: 1958
U.S. box office gross:$6,500,000
Adjusted for inflation: $53,245,121

A French novella becomes an Audrey Hepburn play that, later, is stripped of all its drama and turned into a musical starring Leslie Caron and Louis Jordan.

In 1958, this was considered pandering on par with loading up a film with talking CGI animals. It was, however, a complete success and earned Gigi a then-record nine Oscars for its trouble. These were far different times.

8. The Great Ziegfeld
Year released: 1936
U.S. box office gross:$3,000,000
Adjusted for inflation: $51,094,101

To say they don't make them like this anymore is an understatement.

Director Robert Leonard held nothing back from his musical biography of music professor-turned-showman Florence Ziegfeld. His final product ran roughly three hours long and remained so faithful to the original Ziegfeld Follies shows that one musical number alone, A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody, cost the modern equivalent of $4 million to perform on a rotating stage. The costumes alone took 250 tailors and 50 pounds of sequins to make.

Granted, that lavishness hasn't aged all that well and history has been far kinder to its Oscar rival, Frank Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes To Town.

But with William Powell in the lead role, Myrna Loy stepping in as Ziegfeld's second wife Billie Burke and stars including Fannie Brice, Harriet Hoctor and Ray Bolger making cameo appearances as themselves, The Great Ziegfeld was an unstoppable force in its day. It not only won Best Picture, but Best Actress for Luise Rainer's portrayal of French stage star and Ziegfeld's first wife, Anna Held.

7. The Artist
Year released: 2011
U.S. box office gross: $44,671,682
Adjusted for inflation: $47,014,503

A silent, black-and-white film about the death of the silent film industry overseen by a French director and starring a French actor? Yeah, this one never had a chance of hanging with the Harry Potter finale ($381 million), latest Transformers flick ($352 million), Twilight's vampire teens ($281 million), The Hangover wolf pack ($254 million), Jack Sparrow ($241 million), fast and furious street racers ($210 million) or Tom Cruise the spy ($209 million).

“What's disturbing now is that 20 years ago you could have intelligent movies made that were mainstream movies,” Farr says. “Now 70% of the market is international and the idea is that if you can appeal to a teen with visual effects in the U.S., you can appeal to a teen in China or Europe.”

Of all the films released in the U.S. in 2011, The Artist ranked No. 71 in box-office draw behind the Farrelly Brothers comedy Hall Pass and just ahead of inspirational shark-attack film Soul Surfer. Of the U.S. box office money The Artist did bring in, 43.5% of it was made after it was nominated for an Oscar. Roughly 29% of that total came after it won Best Picture.

6. It Happened One Night
Year released: 1934
U.S. box office gross:$2,500,000
Adjusted for inflation: $44,167,164

Comedies, generally, do not win Best Picture.

Occasionally, a comedy such as You Can't Take It With You (1938), Going My Way (1944), Tom Jones (1963), The Sting (1973) or Annie Hall (1977) will break through. More often, however, a director will have to lace a comedy with some liberal dashes of drama (or vice versa) to get a film such as Terms of Endearment (1983), Driving Miss Daisy (1989), Forrest Gump (1994), Shakespeare in Love (1998), American Beauty (1999) or even Chicago a nod. The Grand Budapest Hotel and Birdman are the closest this year's nominees come to comedy, and they're not all that comic.

Frank Capra's screwball comedy featuring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert not only won Best Picture, but was the first film to sweep the Oscars' five biggest categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Writing.

5. Marty
Year released: 1955
U.S. box office gross:$4,000,000
Adjusted for inflation: $35,333,731

Ernest Borgnine won Best Actor for pushing his lonely 30-something butcher from the Bronx out from under the thumb of his pestering mother (Esther Minciotti) and into the arms of Clara (Betsy Blair), whom all his jealous friends hate.

That tough-guy Borgnine endured a New York borough full of jerks for 90 minutes without punching everyone in sight is a small miracle. That director Delbert Mann and write Paddy Chayefsky won Oscars for themselves by bringing a piece originally written for television to theaters is even more impressive. With homebound moviegoers fueling another television golden age by spurning theaters to stream Breaking Bad, The Wire, Walking Dead, The Sopranos or Mad Men, maybe Hollywood should give greater consideration to mining the small screen for material.

4. All The King's Men
Year released: 1949
U.S. box office gross: $3,500,000
Adjusted for inflation: $34,814,118

Author Robert Penn Warren did little to hide the fact that Willie Stark (played by Broderick Crawford) was based on the rise and fall of iron-fisted Louisiana Gov. Huey Long during the 1930s, which makes this film's success all the more remarkable in modern context.

Instead of throwing red meat to polarized political camps, Crawford and director Robert Rossen turned Long's tale into a fable of political idealism undercut by absolute power and its corruption of those ideals. It continues to serve as a cautionary political tale, even if partisan audiences prefer to use it as a cudgel against their rivals.

3. An American In Paris
Year released: 1951
U.S. box office gross: $3,750,000
Adjusted for inflation: $34,144,615

Gene Kelly basically stalks Leslie Caron around Paris for the better part of two hours. No, that's not why this film won six Oscars.

That's basically the premise tying together a whole lot of George Gershwin numbers including Embraceable You, Nice Work If You Can Get It, I Got Rhythm, Our Love Is Here to Stay and 'S Wonderful. Oh, and there's a whole lot of fine footwork by Kelly and Caron, including a pivotal 16-minute ballet sequence. Gershwin did the heavy lifting, but Kelly and Caron gave his music enough life on screen to launch a decade of musicals to follow.

2. Hamlet
Year released: 1948
U.S. box office gross: $3,250,000
Adjusted for inflation: $31,924,979

Laurence Olivier both starred in and directed this adaptation of William Shakespeare's classic and took on the herculean task of whittling a four-hour production to two and a half hours.

He also wasn't fooling around. To make it the dark, psychological interpretation he wanted, he dispensed with the comic relief by kicking Fortinbras, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern out of the film version entirely. He also beats audiences over the head with Hamlet's Oedipal relationship with his mother by basically having them make out. It all worked, however, as this English version of Hamlet became the first Best Picture winner not produced in the U.S. and made Olivier the first lead actor to direct himself to a Best Actor Oscar until Roberto Benigni did the same in Life Is Beautiful in 1998.

1. The Hurt Locker
Year released: 2009
U.S. box office gross: $17,017,811
Adjusted for inflation: $18,778,712

Remember how we mentioned American Sniper's status as a blockbuster at the beginning of this list? Well, the U.S. wasn't always so eager to see film depictions of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.

This depiction of Jeremy Renner's bomb expert and his experiences in Iraq and at home was absolutely buried behind Avatar, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Twilight, Up, Star Trek and even lighter Best Picture fare including The Blind Side. In fact, the average U.S. moviegoer paid more to see 115 other films than it did to see The Hurt Locker. A Jonas Brothers 3-D concert film made more money at the box office. Best Director winner Kathryn Bigelow had better luck with the $95.7 million U.S. take for Zero Dark Thirty in 2012, but even the story of Osama Bin Laden's capture and killing couldn't break the $100 million barrier and came away only with an Oscar for sound editing.

It wasn't until Lone Survivor took in $125 million in 2013 that audiences started showing up to Iraq and Afghanistan war movies.

— By Jason Notte for MainStreet 

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