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Oscar nods vs. box office success: do they ever overlap?

"Gravity" outperformed most at the box office
"Gravity" outperformed most at the box office

More often than not the Academy awards the majority of accolades to films no one has heard of much less seen. Sometimes the Best Picture nominee has monetary as well as critical success, such as “Forrest Gump,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” and most obviously “Titanic” and “Avatar.” And just as the last two films helped bring the awards race into the main stream, the results of the Producers Guild Awards shows that maybe “Gravity” can be this year’s shot at awarding a film for more than cinematic snobbery.
For the first time ever in the PGA’s history, the Best Picture was awarded as a tie, between “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave.” Currently the latter is the 76th highest grossing film of the year at just over $40 million while the Sandra Bullock tour de force is sitting pretty at seventh with an astounding $260 million. “Frozen,” which will win Best Animated Feature and should win Best original Song, is the fourth highest-grossing feature of the year at over $330 million. These numbers are beyond impressive as they are a part of one of the more successful years at the box office as of late. “Captain Phillips,” “American Hustle,” and most likely “The Wolf of Wall Street” will finish their theatrical runs at over $100 million, marking this as a rare year when the Oscars will actually be relevant to normal movie goers.
Not to worry though if you so desire the art house pedantry of movies so refined as to scare aware many interested audiences. “Her” is at $15 million, “Nebraska” at just under $10 million, and “Philomena” at just over $40 million. That is not to say these films are critically overrated, as “Her” is one of the best films of the year and Bruce Dern’s performance as a disgruntled Midwesterner is riveting, but their limited release and particularly indie subject matter is not the formula for huge ticket sales.
Still, one should not push for more nominations for the big money makers. “Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” although the year’s biggest earner, stunk up the theater for close to three hours, precious time stolen from the audience as they masochistically paid $12 for it. “Thor: The Dark World” was as shallow an affair as you can find, even with Tom Hiddleston doing his best to add any layer of complexity to a fun action flick devoid of anything deep. Even J.J. Abrams got in the act of wooing huge audiences out to see “Star Trek Into Darkness” before revealing halfway through that it is in fact simply a flashier remake of the far superior “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.”
It is great to see a mix in this year’s Oscar nods of big money makers and films that underperformed, even if unjustly so. Audiences do many times miss out on great movies because they are limited in release or lack the special effects so often employed by Marvel and Michael Bay (ugh) but it is a pleasant surprise when the awards go to great films that people actually want to see rather than the ones they are told they should see. You can sit uncomfortably in a theater for over two hours watching a man slowly die of AIDs or yet another tale of white racist ignorance that took place 150 years ago or you could see an amazing journey through space or a hilarious satire of the 1970’s or 1990’s. Oscar bait is silly yet almost always recognized by the Academy. It’s about time they award what people want to see rather than what they should see.