“American Sniper” and “Whiplash”: Best Picture nominees on opposite sides of the box office spectrum

If you take a look at the Best Picture lineup, there’s one really interesting comparison to be made among the nominees, specifically with two of them. Those two are American Sniper and Whiplash. What’s the comparison to be made? Well, they exist on opposite sides of the box office spectrum. That got me thinking about the highest grossing nominees for Best Picture to date, as well as the lowest grossing ones, and where these two current nominees stand in those crops. As such, indulge me while I go over the biggest blockbusters ever to be up for the prize as well as the smallest indies ever to play David to those Goliath competitors.

As a general rule, Best Picture winners tend to be profitable films. With only a few exceptions, they’re never the biggest movies of that year, or all time, obviously…but they’re still ones with a healthy haul at the box office. You almost never see the nominees with tiny budgets go on to win, though there are a few victors with decidedly lower totals, as you’ll see below. Still, the odds favor something in the middle ground, veered towards slightly higher totals. We’ve yet to really see anything with a micro budget go on to win. Hell, they often struggle to even get nominated.

Among the highest grossing nominees of all time, we’re obviously led by James Cameron’s two behemoths. Both Avatar and Titanic are at the top of this list, with the latter being the highest grossing Best Picture winner ever. Both made over $600 million, which is more than double what your average nominee/winner in the category tends to make (Avatar was well over $700 million, in fact). This year, American Sniper could wind up in the $300 million range (as of today it’s at about $213 million), which would put it in the upper tier of nominees to date. It won’t translate into a win, but it’s still impressive, nonetheless. Other high grossing winners include Argo ($136 million), Chicago ($170 million), The Departed ($132 million), Forrest Gump ($329 million), Gladiator ($187 million), The King’s Speech ($135 million), Rain Man ($172 million), and Slumdog Millionaire ($141 million). A surprise win for American Sniper would quickly put it in the top five highest grossing Best Picture winners of all time, but don’t bet on that happening.

On the flip side, the lowest grossing winner ever is The Hurt Locker at just a hair over $17 million, while the nominee with the smallest box office haul to date is Winter’s Bone, at $6.5 million (Amour is close by at about $6.7 million). A Serious Man is really the only other modern nominee ever to be under $10 million, though obviously Whiplash is joining those ranks as of right now, as it’s only at $7.6 million. I doubt it’ll break that $10 million mark, but we shall see. Among other low grossing winners, we have The Artist ($44 million), Crash ($54 million), and The Last Emperor ($43 million). Sadly, Whiplash won’t make nearly enough money to threaten for Best Picture.

In short, being the highest grossing nominee doesn’t really put you in a position to win, though it doesn’t really exclude you from true contention like being the lowest grossing one does. This category favors profitability and being seen by at least some of the masses, though usually the most widely seen of the nominees winds up losing. This year, we’re looking at either Birdman or Boyhood winning, with the former currently having made $31 million and the latter currently at $24 million, and counting for both. They’d be on the lower side of the equation, but hardly at the bottom. Either way, they’d be closer to the traditional numbers than American Sniper or Whiplash. And so it goes…

Stay tuned to see if either of these contenders pulls off a shocking Best Picture upset!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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