Part 3 in #OscarFail series: Deep Culture Impact: Is an Oscar a Reliable Indicator of a Truly Great Film?
In the past 30 years only three Academy Award-winning films have managed to break into the coveted top 50 all-time box office earners.
by Gary David Stratton, PhD • Senior Editor
A century of motion picture production has generated a remarkably small cannon of films that have achieved true ‘Deep Culture’ Impact. The odds against making a true “double-bottom-line” film–Critical Acclaim and, Popular Appeal–are nearly astronomical.
Never Tell Me the Odds!
At any given moment there are over 100,000 screenplays being shopped around Hollywood. These are the ones agents deem worthy of representing. The total number of completed screenplays is much higher. (See, Fresh Story Ideas a Tough Sell in Hollywood.)
Of these 100,000+ screenplays, less than 5,000 per year are actually produced as independent films. These are the films vying for notice at Sundance, Cannes, Tribecca, Toronto, and other film festivals for major Studio purchase and hopefully distribution. They join a handful of Studio-produced films that are all but assured to end up on screen.
Of these 5,000+ films, less than 250 actually end up in national theatrical release each year, and another 250 or so distributed for limited release. That means that less than 500 films per year make it to the local cinemaplex and/or art house theater.
Of these 500 films, only 10 to 15 garner enough critical acclaim for Oscar consideration in the “Best Picture”  and/or “Best Writing” categories (original or adapted screenplay.)
If you’re keeping score, that means that a screenwriter who manages to get an agent to represent their passion project has less than .02% chance of their movie being nominated for an Academy Award. An indie producer who manages to achieve film lock has less than .075% chance of nomination. And that doesn’t even guarantee their the film will be profitable.
Of the 10 to 15 Academy Award-nominated films, many never reach the threshold of box office respectability requisite for broad “popular appeal.” For instance, 2012 Best Picture winner, The Artist, garnered less than $45 million in domestic box office, and 2010 winner, The Hurt Locker only $17 million. They may be great films, but not enough people will ever see them for the movie to have much of a cultural impact (although the rise of Netflix and other streaming services is changing that formula.) A film financer recently told me that their entertainment lawyer suggested that they would have a better chance of turning a profit if they purchased $10 million in lottery tickets.
No wonder only THREE Academy Award-winning films have managed to break into the coveted top 50 all-time box office earners (adjusted for inflation) in the past 30 years.
These films are the kind of rare gems I seek for use in teaching my students. They not only constitute what makes for a truly great film, they also help my students discover the stories that have most deeply shaped their lives.
When combined with films like the nine in yesterday’s post, they form the foundation of a very rare canon of films to achieve deep cultural impact.
Could any of this year’s nominees join this elite company? Perhaps. Are all solid films. But I believe there is only one 2013 nominee (and a non-nominee) that stands much of a chance of becoming a Deep Culture Impact Film (more in my next post).
Our 2011 pick for “Deep Culture Movie of the Year,” Inception, didn’t win the Best Picture Oscar, yet is currently ahead of all 2011 nominees in its IMDB rating (#14 All-Time!) Our 2012 pick, The Help, currently rates higher on IMDB than all its competitors as well. This could be a sign that these films are on their way toward “Deep Culture Impact.” Only time will tell, which measure is better for finding a ‘deep culture’ impact film: the 5500+ academy voters, or the test of time.
 In 2011 the Academy expanded Best Picture Nominees from 5 to as many as 10.