Are Best Picture Winners Getting Worse? A Statistical Analysis.
The best of the best may not be the best.
Intro Pt. 1: What's in a Favorite Movie?
Before I was a data scientist, I was a film major. I’ll admit my radio/television/film major was a questionable decision. Was an all-encompassing focus on Cinema (with a capital "C") the best use of money? Nope. Did I have fun majoring in "imagination?" Big time.
On the first day of every film course, students were typically asked to share their favorite movie with the class. This ritual seems wasteful, but we all took it seriously. Super seriously. For film nerds, a favorite movie functions much like a spirit animal; it's a valuable heuristic for social stereotyping. For example, if someone selects:
A foreign language film, you might think:
"This person thinks they're better than me."
"What a pretentious piece of shit."
"They will make unbearable student films about people making student films."
A movie made before the year 1970, you might think:
"This person thinks they're better than me."
"Who watches Citizen Kane for pleasure?"
"What a pretentious piece of shit."
A superhero movie (that isn't The Dark Knight), you might think:
"I am better than this person."
"Does this person have no taste?"
"Don't they know Marvel movies are ruining cinema?"
I could go on for days, but you get the point. It's everything you need to know about that cinema-lover bundled into a two-hour movie-going experience.
Intro Pt. 2: Does Anyone Like The Oscars’ Favorite Film?
Turning our attention away from film undergrads and to the film industry at large - what if we applied similar (slightly more complex) social sorting criteria to entertainment trends? Take The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the organization behind the Oscars), a body often considered out-of-touch, prone to navel-gazing, and overly political. Year after year, everyone seems ever-so-slightly discontent with The Oscars, like this random guy on Twitter named Henry Mortensen:
Preach, Henry. Each year The Oscars deliver a product that supposedly showcases the film industry's finest offerings. But The Academy hardly seems impartial, as voters continually recalibrate their choices based on insular groupthink, social signaling, and sociopolitical machinations. Meanwhile, Oscar viewership has steadily declined over the last two decades. Each year people care a little bit less about cinema's bigest night.
The Academy has countered this trend through a series of misguided format changes. They removed lesser award categories from the Oscar broadcast, flirted with adding a "Fan Favorite" category (I don't even know what this means), and expanded the Best Picture nominee pool from five to ten selections. Clearly, The Academy has identified a discrepancy between TV-goer tastes and its product (the collection of nominees). So why is Hollywood concerned with its favorite film selections? What does a given year's Best Picture winner say about the film industry? And what makes a “bad” Best Picture?
Methodology: What Makes a Bad Best Picture?
Our first task is to define a "bad" Best Picture winner, which begs the question of what makes a movie successful in the first place. To simplify our evaluation criteria, let's say movies are made for two reasons: to make money (box office) or to acquire prestige (critical acclaim and film awards). For commercial success, we'll analyze inflation-adjusted box office sales. For critical acclaim, we'll use Metacritic's composite critic score. Metacritic's composite score is generated by translating professional critic reviews into ratings on a scale of 0 to 100 (100 being the best) and then averaging all scores. Note: We will exclude movies released after 2019 since pandemic-era box office is not representative of consumer preference.
The resulting combination of factors produces a two-by-two grid of critical and commercial acclaim. While I'm not the biggest fan of two-by-two charts, they’re useful for simplifying complex problems and surfacing points of differentiation within a given market. In mapping this two by two, we get four quadrants that classify our world of Best Picture Winners. I'll admit the quadrant names are deliberately unscientific (and hopefully amusing):
For this analysis, we'll:
Review the contents of each quadrant.
Analyze how our commercial and critical acclaim metrics change over time.
Determine whether there has been a paradigm shift in Best Picture selection.
Initial Results: A Cool Chart
Graphing our two-by-two, it's hard to draw any immediate conclusions, but it's aesthetically pleasing (that has to count for something):
From here, we'll examine the most prominent films in each quadrant.
Poor Critical Reviews, Strong Box Office: Movies Elites Dislike
Not all Best Picture winners will be critical darlings. Sometimes a given year’s Best Picture winner is the movie that proved most significant in cultural impact. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is, by definition, an elitist institution. As a result, The Academy often avoids movies of mass cultural appeal. That said, once in a while, a commercially successful film with mixed reviews slips past the goalie.
Looking at this roster of winners, we could plausibly term them "classics" - frequently rewatched blockbusters of above-average quality. Who didn't grow up watching VHS copies of The Sound of Music, Rocky, or Titanic? Presumably, the answer is people born after the year 2000. These films have long-term staying power within the American zeitgeist. Personally, I've seen Forrest Gump no less than ten times. It was just always on television. Always. Whenever I turned on the TV, there he was - Forrest Gump running across America or talking about chocolate boxes.
The Academy was likely trying to reincorporate this movie archetype through their "Fan Favorite" award - an olive branch from The Academy to the average TV viewer. That said, preserving the sanctity of the Best Picture category while cheapening the highfalutin Oscar brand makes for a confusing tradeoff.
Poor Critical Reviews, Poor Box Office: The Unworthy
Our next category is the worst of the best. This cohort is neither commercially nor artistically successful (by Oscar standards). These are movies where you look back with great confusion and exclaim, "how the hell did Greenbook win Best Picture?"
We often find these movies besting a critical darling considered fringe for even The Academy's highbrow tastes. Consider Crash, a pedestrian drama mercilessly critiqued for its overly simple depiction of race. In 2004, the film beat Brokeback Mountain, which was the front-runner heading into Oscar night. It may seem absurd, but Brokeback Mountain was considered subversive twenty years ago, and many believe The Academy shied away from controversy in naming Crash Best Picture. Here is a quote from a Variety recap of the 2004 ceremony:
After the results were read, many were shocked or angry, criticizing the Academy. Crash’s director Paul Haggis apparently agrees with the sentiment that it wasn’t the best film. In an interview with HitFix Tuesday, Haggis lauded the other nominated films and expressed doubt about the outcome.
“Was [Crash] the best film of the year? I don’t think so,” Haggis admitted. “There were great films that year.”
History effectively repeated itself ten years later when the middling Greenbook defeated critic favorites such as Roma, BlacKkKlansman, and Get Out. The other Best Picture winners from this list emerge during so-called "down years." For example, in 1995, Braveheart won top prize over Apollo 13, Babe, Sense and Sensibility, and Il Postino. I don't think anyone was devastated that Babe missed out on an Oscar.
Strong Critical Reviews, Strong Box Office: Movies We All Like
Our next category is rarefied air - films that net eyeballs and acclaim. Such commercial and critical success can be considered a relic by today's standards, as the most recent film to win box office success and Best Picture was 2003's Return of the King. Unfortunately, it's all been downhill since Return of the King. There was once a time, decades ago, when Hollywood could invest money into movies that worked as blockbusters and Oscar bait. I don’t know what it would take for those market conditions to return, but I miss that world (I like having a reason to go to the movies).
Another crazy takeaway from this list is the unrivaled (and quite honestly bonkers) success of Gone with the Wind. The 4-hour Civil War epic has grossed $4.2B through its various theatrical runs when adjusted for inflation - that's ~323,076,923 Chipotle burritos for anyone counting at home. If a 4-hour Civil War epic were released today, it would likely gross no more than $4.2M.
Strong Critical Reviews, Poor Box Office: Film Major Garbage
Our last category is "prestige films," or what I lovingly call "film major garbage." These films typically make you feel something, and that emotion is often profound sadness. Such movies are the grown-up equivalent of emo-rock. For example, I was sad for the entirety of Manchester by the Sea's (a 2016 nominee) two-hour and twenty-minute runtime, and apparently, that's a good thing.
"Film major garbage" is often too artsy for the general public (and some cinephiles). Consider The Artist, a silent film released in 2012 that is an homage to 1920s Silent Era Hollywood. Was anybody in the general public clambering for a tribute to this era of cinema? People enjoy sound in their movies - you don't have to be an econ professor to figure this out. Unsurprisingly, people did not line up around the block to sit in silence for an hour and forty minutes.
Independent film experienced a renaissance in the late 90s and early-2000s, with growth fueled by newly-available technologies (digital cameras, Final Cut Pro, prosumer equipment, etc.), increased distribution opportunities (film festivals), the rise of specialized low-budget production and distribution companies (Miramax, Sony Pictures Classic, etc.), actor willingness to accept low-pay and high-prestige roles (Pulp Fiction, Sideways, Reservoir Dogs), and a growing market for non-traditional cinema (artsy theaters, Sundance, Cannes, etc.). These films occupy a minority share of box office sales and dominate Academy mindshare.
As you may have noticed, much of our “film major garbage” list features indie films - and therein lies The Academy's problem. Best Picture winners are getting better (critically) and worse (in viewership). Film majors have monopolized Hollywood's taste barometer and, in the process, have produced an Oscar product that underwhelms the masses.
Best Picture Trends over Time: The Great Divorce
When we look at commercial and critical Best Picture scores over time, we observe a clear-cut trend break in the early 2000s.
Before the turn of the century, box office and critical acclaim moved concurrently (though the relationship is weak). Then, in the mid-2000s, the two divorced one another, growing further apart with each passing year.
Results and Takeaways: More Prestige and Less Money
Some takeaways from our analysis:
Over the best two decades, Best Picture winners have grown in critical acclaim and declined in box office success.
This trend began in the early 2000s, before the rise of streaming platforms.
The development of the indie film system (movies produced outside the major studio system) in the late 90s and early 2000s likely played a significant role in our trend break. The majority of our "film major garbage" movies are indie productions.
These trends are only accelerating with the ubiquity of streaming platforms and the increasing fragmentation of viewer preferences.
And, of course, Crash is a bad Best Picture winner.
So are Best Picture winners getting worse? Unfortunately, the answer is yes - as far as the general population is concerned (emphasis on “general population”). There was a time when the entertainment industry could produce Best Picture winners that drew viewers to theaters and received rave reviews. And it appears that time is gone.
Final Thoughts: The Death of the Median Movie Consumer
In politics, there is a theory known as the median voter theorem, which states that politicians gravitate toward the position occupied by the median voter in their electorate. Winning widespread votes is a normalizing force, and politicians calibrate their messaging in response. Oscar winners once appealed to the median consumer - at least before the 2000s - so what happened?
Like any changing market, it's the end product of numerous paradigm shifts: the rise of indie film and niche markets, the rise of TV and streaming, elites increasingly dominating Hollywood, sequels dominating the box office, massive consolidation amongst media giants, globalization of film marketing, and so much more. Like everything in the attention economy, market fragmentation and hyper-personalization overpowered universal appeal.
End state, The Oscars lost a class of movie capable of appeasing cinephiles and everyday consumers alike. The result of this metamorphosis is an Oscar product that beckons the question, "does this person think they're better than me?"
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