Why don’t blockbusters win Oscars anymore? Blame sequels

January 20, 2022 | WTOP's Jason Fraley examines the Oscar box office (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — It’s a constant — and legit — complaint each Oscar season: Why are Academy Award contenders often movies that most folks haven’t seen?

“There has to be some way to balance films that are done for artistic reasons with films that the majority of the viewing public is actually going to go see,” WTOP listener Kevin Wisener thoughtfully wrote on Jan. 24 as the nominees were announced. “It is nice to show appreciation for labors of love, but it is hard to find viewership when people have not heard of most of the films that are nominated.”

Let me start by saying that I agree entirely with the main thrust of Kevin’s question. It’s bizarre to have an award show where, unlike the Emmys (TV) or Grammys (music), mainstream audiences haven’t seen most of the nominees. Not only does the broadcast become less inclusive, it only feeds the (misguided) narrative of naysayers who roll their eyes at celebs patting themselves on the back.

In a perfect world, the best movies would be spread out over the course of the entire year so that the general public could see them, instead of all of the great movies being crammed in at the end of the year for maximum Oscar momentum. Unfortunately, there are two distinct sections of the year: one where Hollywood makes money on summer blockbusters, then another where Hollywood releases its fall award contenders. So yes, the industry is partly at fault for this out-of-touch release strategy.

That said, I believe moviegoers must look in the mirror before blaming the award voters. The onus is on we the viewers to actively seek out original, creative, quality movies that challenge us. Instead, too many of us take the lazy route and choose to see familiar, formulaic franchise installments. The result is a dangerously growing divide between the annual box office champions and the Oscar contenders.

It wasn’t always this way. In fact, mainstream blockbusters used to win Best Picture often.

In the 1930s, a Top 10 grosser won 80 percent of the time with “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930), “Cimarron” (1931), “Grand Hotel” (1932), “It Happened One Night” (1934), “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1935), “The Great Ziegfeld” (1936), “You Can’t Take it With You” (1938) and “Gone With the Wind” (1939). The exceptions were “Cavalcade” (1933) and “The Life of Emile Zola” (1937).

In the 1940s, a Top 10 grosser won 80 percent of the time with “Rebecca” (1940), “How Green Was My Valley” (1941), “Mrs. Miniver” (1942), “Casablanca” (1943), “Going My Way” (1944), “The Lost Weekend” (1945), “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947) and “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946). The only two exceptions were “Hamlet” (1948) and “All the King’s Men” (1949).

In the 1950s, a Top 10 grosser won 90 percent of the time with “All About Eve” (1950), “An American in Paris” (1951), “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952), “From Here to Eternity” (1953), “On the Waterfront” (1954), “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956), “Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957), “Gigi” (1958) and “Ben Hur” (1959). The only exception was “Marty” (1955).

In the 1960s, a Top 10 grosser won 90 percent of the time with “West Side Story” (1961), “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962), “Tom Jones” (1963), “My Fair Lady” (1964), “The Sound of Music” (1965), “A Man for All Seasons” (1966), “Oliver!” (1968) and “Midnight Cowboy” (1969). The only surprising exception was “In the Heat of the Night” (1967), which was still culturally significant.

During the Hollywood Renaissance of the 1970s, a Top 10 grosser won 100 percent of the time with “Patton” (1970), “The French Connection” (1971), “The Godfather” (1972), “The Sting” (1973), “The Godfather: Part II” (1974), “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975), “Rocky” (1976), “Annie Hall” (1977), “The Deer Hunter” (1978) and “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979).

Things dipped in the 1980s as a Top 10 grosser won 70 percent of the time with “Ordinary People” (1980), “Chariots of Fire” (1981), “Terms of Endearment” (1983), “Out of Africa” (1985), “Platoon” (1986), “Rain Man” (1988) and “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989). The only three exceptions were “Gandhi” (1982), “Amadeus” (1984) and “The Last Emperor” (1987).

In 1990s, as a Top 10 grosser only won 50 percent of the time with “Dances With Wolves” (1990), “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991), “Schindler’s List” (1993), “Forrest Gump” (1994) and “Titanic” (1997). The other 50 percent were not Top 10 grossers: “Unforgiven” (1992), “Braveheart” (1995), “The English Patient” (1996), “Shakespeare in Love” (1998) and “American Beauty” (1999).

It plummeted in the 2000s to 30 percent with “Gladiator” (2000), “Chicago” (2002) and “LOTR: Return of the King” (2003), while “A Beautiful Mind” (2001), “The Departed” (2006) and “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008) cracked the Top 15 and “Million Dollar Baby” (2004) fell to No. 24, “Crash” (2005) to No. 49, “No Country for Old Men” (2007) to No. 36 and “Hurt Locker” (2009) to No. 116.

Now, in the 2010s, we’ve hit rock bottom at 0 percent. That’s right, zero of our Top 10 grossers have won Best Picture. “The King’s Speech” (2010) finished No. 18, “The Artist” (2011) was No. 71, “Argo” (2012) was No. 22, “12 Years a Slave” (2013) was No. 62, “Birdman” (2014) was No. 78 and “Spotlight” (2015) was No. 62. This year’s front-runner “La La Land” is currently at No. 20. If “Moonlight” scores an upset, it’ll be the second-lowest-grossing film to win (after “Hurt Locker”).

How did this sudden drop happen? What changed in our moviegoing habits starting in the 1980s?

One word: Franchises.

Yes, the same decade that Gordon Gekko proclaimed, “Greed is good,” Hollywood studios fell in love with the franchise model, preferring the safe bet of sequels over the risk of original content. It’s hard to blame “Jaws” (1975), “Star Wars” (1977), “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) and “Back to the Future” (1985) for lighting this fuse — they’re great flicks! — but there’s no denying it began a troubling trend.

So here we are, decades later, with a cancerous divide between the mainstream blockbusters and the award-season masterpieces. While there are refreshing exceptions to the rule — “American Sniper” (2014) and “Inside Out” (2015) were Top 5 grossers — it saddens me to look at the box office charts each year and see that most of the top-grossing movies are indeed sequels, prequels, and remakes.

In 2014, we saw “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1,” “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,” “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” “Maleficent,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” “Godzilla” and “22 Jump Street.”

In 2015, we saw “Star Wars: Force Awakens,” “Jurassic World,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “Furious 7,” “Minions,” “Mockingjay Part 2,” “Spectre,” “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” and “Pitch Perfect 2.”

And this past year, it was “Star Wars: Rogue One,” “Finding Dory,” “Captain America: Civil War,” “The Jungle Book,” “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” “Jason Bourne,” “Star Trek Beyond,” “X-Men: Apocalypse,” “Kung Fu Panda 3” and “Ghostbusters.”

None of these smash-hit flicks were nominated for Best Picture — nor should they have been. Oscar voters will never reward filmmakers who are riding the creative coattails of other, more original filmmakers who came up with these initial concepts years ago. It’d be like awarding Henry Ford’s grandson for the automobile or honoring Steve Jobs’ nephew for the iPhone. It just wouldn’t be fair.

The truth is, great movies are still being made, but fewer folks are going to see them. Don’t blame the Oscar voters for honoring fresh ideas; blame the dumbed-down sequels for diluting the creative field.

I know, I know. With all the problems in the world, why pick this subject for a rant? I assure you this isn’t an “inside baseball” gripe from a film buff; it’s a tangible danger to an ever-divided society losing our common cultural touchstones. We should be able to quote a movie on a Friday at the bar, Sunday at church or Monday at the office and have the majority of folks recognize it. We don’t have to all like the same movies — it’s so damn subjective — but we should at least have the ability to talk about it.

My hope is to narrow the film spectrum, to bridge the growing divide between expert cinephiles who hail “Boyhood” and “Birdman” as masterpieces, and casual moviegoers who don’t get the hype. “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate,” a cinematic chasm that feeds the political divides we see.

So that’s where I stand on it. Yes, I wish Hollywood would spread out its movie releases so that these award shows didn’t feel so exclusive, but even more so, I wish that studio executives — and we the moviegoing public — would seek out new ideas instead of falling back on the comfortable franchises. We need to each make an effort to bridge this divide or it’ll worsen with each passing Oscar season.

Thanks for writing, Kevin.


Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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