The Most Popular Oscars Ever? Nope. (Why The Academy STILL Needs Fixes to Make the Oscars More Representative)

Records have nearly been smashed! After decades in the doldrums, in this year’s Oscar’s telecast—for achievement in the year 2018—popular movies made a comeback. Here’s Todd VanDerWerff explaining for Vox:

For the first time since 2012, the total domestic box office of the eight films nominated for Best Picture topped $1 billion — and that’s without box office receipts for the 10-times-nominated Roma…Indeed, the $1,260,625,731 pulled in by the seven films we have data for is the biggest total for a Best Picture lineup since 2010, when the 10 films nominated (led by Toy Story 3) made $1,357,489,702…the average box office haul of the nominated films we have data for, the number becomes even more impressive: $180,089,390. Though their combined take falls slightly behind those of 2011 and 2010, the average is well ahead of those years ($135,748,970 for 2010; $170,512,813 for 2009), since 10 films were nominated in both those years.

(I changed Vox’s years to the year prior to match the rest of this article.)

This would seem to refute my thesis from last August; I predicted—based on the data—that the Oscars are nominating fewer and fewer popular films. 

So let’s check back in on those metrics I developed now that we have a new year to add to our dataset. But I’ll go above that simple mandate: I want to make an argument for popular films. I think the Academy has a chance to get higher ratings with more popular films and more importantly, I think this would better represent the state of film each year. Let’s start with defining the problem. Before one can solve a problem, one must understand it. Otherwise the solution probably won’t work.

The Problem: The Academy is Nominating Fewer Popular Films

Collecting the Data

This is true. But it’s complicated. My “rule of thumb” when you have a complicated issue that can be measured in multiple ways—like Oscar voting—is to just measure it as many ways as possible, to see where the trends lead you. If most or all the measurements roughly align directionally—meaning one or two measures could be an outlier—then you can generally trust the trend.

(This process is my refutation to the worst quote every about lies and damned lies. Mark Twain did more to set back statistics than anything._

Some definitions before I use the metrics. First, I’m calling critically acclaimed/awards-focused films “prestige” going forward. In olden times, we called these films “independent” but most independent films now have major studio distribution, so that doesn’t make sense. I’m defining “popular” films as films grossing over $100 million dollars in ticket-price adjusted terms. I’m defining “blockbusters” as films grossing over $250 million. That makes that category very, very small—usually fewer than 10 films per year—but that’s the point of the blockbuster category. Finally, I’m adjusting all ticket prices to 2018 box office, since that’s what my data set used in August. 

With that out of the way, to the charts and tables. Before we start, know that the Academy nominates a different number of films each year for Best Picture depending on the voting totals. This year it was 8 films, where 2017 and 2016 featured 9 films. 2014 and 2015 featured 8 films. And 2009 and 2010 filled out ten slots each year. We need to account for that.

(Oh and I’m assuming “box office” is correlated with “popularity”. But feel free to disagree with that, somehow.)

Let’s start with “average box office” per film. This is the metric VanDerWerff quoted above. Crucially, Vox used the the mean (or arithmetic) average. With mean averages, you run the risk of one huge outlier skewing the results. (In finance, see the “Bill Gates walks into the bar, everyone is richer, on average” scenario.). Avatar did this in 2009; Black Panther is doing it now. (Also, Black Panther box office haul is divided by fewer films (7) compared to Avatar’s fellow ten films.) 

One outlier should not mean the films as a body are more popular. To account for this, I calculated both the mean and median average. I wish I had thought of this back in August, but I’m updating it now. Check it out:

box office unadjusted

So by mean average, yes we’ve done it! The most popular Oscars of all time!

But the “median average” shows a huge split. This is evidence that overall, these films aren’t that popular compared to years past, with one tremendous outlier. As I said though, we could look at this in both adjusted and unadjusted terms. Adjusted box office is the equivalent to accounting for inflation in economics: it’s something you should ALWAYS do. Time value of money, and what not. This won’t lower this year’s average, to be clear, but raise past years. So I included both below, with again both the mean and median averages:

box office adjusted v02

The trend lines are the same, but a little even more decline in popularity. However, one of the purposes of nominating the films is to have multiple popular films. Even one blockbuster isn’t enough to get lots of people interested. That’s why I liked counting the number of popular and blockbuster films. (Last time, I included these in both percentage terms and adjusting for inflation, but I think the story is roughly the same without those views.)

counts

This looks a little bit better, though arguably we have been flat at 3 popular films per year. (If you use percentages, it may even look a bit better.)

Of course, one could argue that the industry economics of box office change over time, making even comparisons for a decade ago problematic. Remember when 3D was a thing? Fair. To index for that, I ignored the size of box office returns, and just judged how popular films were within their own year. This being their “rank” on the Box Office Mojo list at the end of the year. (I’ll monitor this, though, as some of the films may move up after their nominations with additional box office coming in.) Again I included both mean and median averages. 

ranks

In this chart, lower is better. (Meaning more top ten and top 25 films.) Again, this year isn’t the most popular accounting for the rank of films.

Evaluating the Data

If you’re counting, I’ve mentioned 16 different ways to measure this data. Let’s use all those numbers to account for how well 2018 did in context of the 10 years since the Academy moved to “up to 10” films. To make it easy, here’s two tables with all 16 measurements, sorted by unadjusted and adjusted box office.

Screen Shot 2019-01-25 at 3.43.26 PM.png

table 2 all metrics v02

To highlight the trends, I put the highest value per column in dark green, and the next highest in light green. Now we can ask, “How well did 2018 do looking at many, many metrics?”

Well, not great. Better than the last three years, for certain, but overall it is DEFINITELY not the most popular year in Oscar nominees. The two categories that 2018 “wins” are mean average, unadjusted and average rank of all films. It also got second in mean average for adjusted box office. 

This shows just how big of a monster film Black Panther was. Without it, the numbers would have declined again. And you could argue that Black Panther is a black swan movie event, and other superhero movies are unlikely to repeat its success. As a result, the median box office is lower than every year except 2008 or 2014. That’s in unadjusted terms! It has the lowest median average of all films and would have been probably even lower if Roma had a theatrical release.

I have a theory for what happened, which I’ll explain next, but first, look for it in the data. Here’s my counting chart with two arrows:

count with arrows

(And yes, I’m worried that I’m adding arrows a la this XYCD cartoon.)

The key that jumps out across most of the measurements is the two eras of Best Picture nominating in this data, from 1998. In 2009, the Academy tried to change procedures to get more popular films. They expanded the Best Picture category to ten films, invited everyone to vote and changed the voting system. (As Vox notes, this was in response to The Dark Knight and Wall-E being shut out the year prior.) As a result, the popularity of the films skyrocketed, including blockbusters like Avatar, Inception, Toy Story and Up.

For a brief time this worked, but now we’re back to fewer popular films, though 2018 saw a slight up tick with Black Panther. The best way to see this is to divide up the last 15 years into 5 year chunks, again using a few different measurements to show. Despite the uptick this year—and in 2014 with American Sniper—the last five years have been bad for blockbusters. 

Quad Chart v02.png

So if that’s the problem—the Academy is nominating fewer and fewer popular films (and I say it is)—than what is driving this problem?

Cause 1: The Academy isn’t nominating 10 films

In a nut shell, the Academy started by nominating ten films each cycle. Over concerns that films with too little support were making it in, they added a threshold of votes at the bottom end of the range. This means that some popular films may have made it in, but just lacked popular support. Except…

..if you used this year’s final Gold Derby rankings as representative of what would have made it in…

gold derby

Source: Gold Derby

…then If Beale Street Could Talk and First Man would have made it in with $11 and $44 million in domestic box office, respectively. That wouldn’t help solve the problem. (By the way, Gold Derby is just an awesome website. They do stellar work.) And would have moved all the averages lower. So in addition to fewer films being nominated, what else happened?

Cause 2: Voting Procedures have been “hacked”

Not by Russian trolls or Korean cyber-criminals, but by prestige film campaigns. That’s right, the enemy is within our walls!

As many recent articles have noted, Netflix is spending a small fortune on the Roma campaign. Amazon spent a ton of money on Manchester by the Sea’s campaign two years ago. Harvey Weinstein innovated in how to campaign for awards and spent heavily too. Since an Oscar nomination can dramatically boost a film’s top line, studios have spent more and more.

With that marketing spending came increasing knowledge about how to push voters to vote to get prestige films nominated. With increasing knowledge about a convoluted system, voters nominate more and more obscure films, which means the popular films get shut out. My theory is that in the chaos of the change in 2009, the campaigns didn’t know how voting would effect the nominees so some popular films (Avatar, Toy Story) and non-traditional films (District 9, The Blind Side) snuck through the voting process. Now, though, we’re all smarter about the process and as a result, the Oscars have moved back towards prestige films, as it did in the 2000s.

Why We Need a Change: My Opinion

Personally, I loved the 2009-2012 period of the Oscars. I enjoy popular films as much as prestige films. In both cases, though, I love the good films. Moreover, I love when the films nominated for Best Picture truly represent the year in film.

And that’s honestly what the Academy needs at this moment. Get Out and Black Panther needed to be represented at the Oscars. But let’s not stop there. Leaving out The Force Awakens ignores a well made movie that is arguably the most seen movie of this decade. Same with the trio of Coco, Inside Out and Zootopia. Those are well made films that are also good. I’d argue that more people saw Frozen this year than some Best Picture nominated films. And it was great too! What about the best comedy from any given year, like Girl’s Trip? Or musicals like The Greatest Showman? It’s a disservice to film historians to pretend these movies didn’t happen or that they weren’t great too or that fans don’t love them.

Now, will this solve the Academy’s viewership problems?

It’s unclear. As I showed in August—in a table I can’t update yet—this hasn’t fully translated to viewership for the awards ceremony itself. The brief uptick in popular films in 2009/2010 only started to change perceptions of the Academy Awards as out of touch, and ratings did start to rise after years of decline. That said, how do we attribute this to declining TV viewership overall (as seen in broadcast ratings period) versus the awards show itself?

Slide08

Either way, it can’t hurt to have more popular films nominated, can it? Look at 2014 as a case study. That year saw saw the release of American Sniper and as a result of its appeal to middle America (it was heavily promoted by Fox News), viewership of that awards skyrocketed. Getting more films appealing to different demographics—superheroes/Star Wars for the fan boys, animated for kids and families, musicals for Broadway fans, for examples—can’t hurt.

But don’t worry. I’m here to fix the problem.

My Fixes for the Oscars: First, Add a “Selection Committee”

To address cause one, the solution is simple, return to 10 films nominated each year. Then at least a few more slots are open for popular films. Though again, it won’t solve the problem by itself. So we need something else. Here’s my proposal: add a selection committee to the Oscar Best Picture committee. 

Have the entire Academy vote for the first five films into the Best Picture race. This will naturally trend towards the prestige films. Then the “selection committee” gets the next five slots.

The committee will only nominate popular films (again, over $100 million in box office, with a preference for even bigger films), that are well-liked to fill out the slate. Also, the committee will have a mandate to represent different genres of films (science fiction, horror, comedy, musicals, animation, super-hero and more) to have a well rounded slate. Crucially, voting will absolutely factor into this. The top film in respective genres (say the most voted science fiction, superhero or musical) will get heavy consideration.

(Yes, I understand this will NEVER happen. The Academy voters would riot. One may dream, right?)

Let’s use this year as an example for how the slate would look, and what it means for our popularity measures. If we use Gold Derby data as a stand in for the final Oscar voting totals (an assumption), we have four “prestige” films in the top 5. To fill out the next five, we’re leaving out Vice, First Man, and If Beale Street Could Talk—all in Gold Derby’s top ten—because they were under $50 million in domestic box office,. But at spots 11, 12, and 13 in the Gold Derby rankings, are three great candidates that really do represent the year of 2018 in film: Mary Poppins Returns, Crazy Rich Asians and A Quiet Place. As a result, you’d end up with this film slate:

gold derby final nominations wbox office

Here are the averages too:

averages - quad chart

Again, the mean averages don’t change much, but this looks incredible in the median averages. And this slate would probably do great in the ratings.

Other Fixes: Set a “salary cap”.

I have some other, possibly less controversial proposals. 

If you’ve made a great movie, it’s hard to stand out in a crowded Oscar field. Especially if some studios can spend tens of millions of dollars running against you. My simple solution is the Oscars should mandate that an awards campaign has a ceiling of $5 million dollars. Yep, that’s the maximum amount a film can spend. 

The result would be to encourage many more films to throw their hats in the ring in a fairer environment. Presumably, the films would then be competing more on their merits than the strengths of their awards campaigns. If you plan to spend $5 million dollars, but Netflix is going to spend $30 million on their film, you can’t hope to get a share of voice, can you? If every film has the same ceiling, then the films are competing much more on which is just the best film. That sounds great.

Yes, studios will still try to rig this. They will use “general marketing” spending to bolster awards campaigns. They will lie, cheat and steal. But at least we’d have a rule against it.

Conclusion: Nothing Will Change

None of these things will happen, I understand that. The Academy is huge with multiple constituencies it is constantly trying (and failing) to please. Some critics and many film aficionados oppose superhero, animated and sci-fi films on principle. Moreover, the current focus of the Academy is on diversity in nominations, which requires its own focus. Can they try to tackle changing the nominations process at the same time? Doubtful. 

  1. […] I’d find a way if I were the Academy to get more popular films nominated each year. I put my recommendations here, and the fact that having a generally more popular slate this year—though not the most popular […]

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