Why are ‘Deep Culture Impact’ Films so Rare?

Part three in series: The Oscar “Huh?!” Factor: Why Academy Voters Usually Pick the Wrong Film

In the past 40 years only three Academy Award-winning films managed to break into the coveted top 60 all-time box office earners. 

by Gary David Stratton, PhD • Senior Editor

ET is one of only 9 films on the AFI Top 100 list to crack the top 65 all-time box office hits

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.

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.

The 2012 Best Picture winner garnered less than $45 million in domestic box office, normally not nearly enough for a deep culture impact
The 2012 Best Picture winner garnered less than $45 million in domestic box office, normally not nearly enough for a deep culture impact

Of these 500 films, only 10 to 15 garner enough critical acclaim for Oscar consideration in the “Best Picture” [1] 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 even 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 financier 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.

Elite Company

Return of the King is one of only three post-1980 Academy Award winners to break into the 50 all time top grossing films

No wonder only THREE Academy Award-winning films have managed to break into the coveted top 60 all-time box office earners (adjusted for inflation) in the past 40 years.

Forrest Gump (1994)

Titanic (1997)

The Return of the King (2003)

These films are the type 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. Only time will tell, which measure is better for finding a ‘deep culture’ impact film: the 6000+ academy voters, or the test of time.


Next: 100+ All-Time Top ‘Deep Culture Impact’ Films

[1] In 2011 the Academy expanded Best Picture Nominees from 5 to as many as 10.


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