The Reason for the Oscars Viewership Woes

An interesting correlation that I found

I’ve always been a fan of the NFL, but the Oscars will always be my Super Bowl. I have seen every Best Picture winner and nominee since 2010. If you give me a year — I could name the Best Picture winner. Furthermore, I have managed to accurately choose the Best Picture, Director, Actors, and Actresses (Supporting included) for the past few years. Nevertheless, I recognize that I am of a minority of people that truly enjoy watching the coveted ceremony.

It isn’t any secret that the Oscars have had a problem with ratings. Last year, the Oscars managed to draw 32.9 million viewers, the lowest it’s been since the 2008 Oscars drew a dismal 31.8 million viewers. This decline has occurred at a steady rate since 2014 when the Oscars managed to draw 43.7 million viewers, the highest its been since the 2000 Oscars drew in 46.5 million viewers. So what happened?

Some people blame the Oscars’ lack of diversity efforts. Some people may blame the hosts. Some people may (reasonably) blame the length of the show. I, however, have noticed a clear correlation as to why the Oscars have had tough luck the past few years: the movies.

To be exact, I don’t mean the movies that are nominated, I mean the movies that win Best Picture. When you look at the movies that won Best Picture since 2014, you’ll find that they have one thing in common: low box office returns at the time of the ceremony. The last movie to win Best Picture and pass the 100 million dollar mark was Argo during the 2013 Oscars (remember, even though it won for the year 2012, the Oscars are held a year afterward).

Since then the box office returns for Best Picture winning movies have not been stellar. 12 Years a Slave made only about 56.6 million, Birdman made only 42.3 million, Spotlight made 45 million, and Moonlight drew in only 27.8 million. What this means is that it is very likely that a lot of Oscar viewers have not even seen many of these movies. For the sake of context, a ticket to a movie is typically about 10 dollars. With 27.8 million/10 being equivalent to only 2,780,000 people, this means that many people were likely not tuning in to the Oscars to see Moonlight win Best Picture, and that is assuming that every person who saw Moonlight decided to watch the award show. Other movies nominated that year weren’t really box office juggernauts either. Basically, there wasn’t really any movies that audiences could root for that year, hence the problems with ratings.

If you need further proof though, here are a few other examples:

  • The Oscars largest viewership year was in 1998 at a whopping 57.7 million viewers. The winner of Best Picture that year was box office juggernaut Titanic.
  • 2008 featured the lowest ratings in Oscar history. That year No Country for Old Men won with just 74.2 million dollars in box office returns. The next year hit a 5 million jump and Slumdog Millionaire won with a box office return of 141.3 million.
  • 2003–2004 had a massive jump of 10 million in Oscar viewership. The winner for the 2004 Oscars was Lord of the Rings: Return of the King with a box office of 377 million.

For full context and reference, here is the list of Oscar viewership since the year 2000(For my Box Office Numbers, you can find them here:

2017–32.9 million viewers
 2016–34.4 million viewers
 2015–37.3 million viewers
 2014–43.7 million viewers
 2013–40.4 million viewers
 2012–39.5 million viewers
 2011–37.9 million viewers
 2010–41.6 million viewers
 2009–36.9 million viewers
 2008–31.8 million viewers (low)
 2007–39.9 million viewers
 2006–38.6 million viewers
 2005–42.2 million viewers
 2004–43.6 million viewers 
 2003–33.0 million viewers
 2002–40.5 million viewers
 2001–42.9 million viewers
 2000–46.5 million viewers (high)

The Spill-Over Effect

Of course, there are going to be a few anomalies that go against my theory. The most noticeable would be the 2010 Oscars that drew in 41.6 million viewers even though the Oscar winning film The Hurt Locker only managed to draw a 17 million dollar box office return (the lowest grossing Best Picture film in history). However, some of these anomalies can be addressed by films that had a likely chance to win Best Picture. For example, although The Hurt Locker pulled in low box office numbers, its main competition Avatar was (and still is) the highest grossing film of all time. On top of that, 2010 was also the first year the Oscars expanded the Best Picture category to include 10 films instead of 5. Undoubtedly, these two factors allowed the 2010 Oscars to gain popularity.

Furthermore, while the 2014 Oscars experienced high viewership despite 12 Years a Slave carrying a low box office return, its competing film Gravity had an impressive box office showing.

An Imperfect Theory

Sadly, like most theories, my theory is imperfect mainly for one reason: 2003. In 2003 the Oscars had a low 33 million viewers despite the Best Picture movie Chicago crossing the 100 million dollar mark in box office returns. Furthermore, the movie was also competing against two movies that generated giant returns: Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Gangs of New York. For this reason, much of my theory did not seem to hold up for that year. This proves that while my theory may have correlations, there is absolutely no causation.

Even more damning is when we run a broad correlation for every year since 2000(discounting the spill-over effect). In this instance the r output is equal to .334 (with 1 being completely correlated, 0 being not at all correlated, and -1 being inversely correlated). While this certainly indicates a positive correlation, it is a weak one. However, if we apply the correlation to the years since 2013 (the approximate year social media and streaming directly affected television) the correlation is at a higher .525.

The Numbers for the 2018 Oscars is….

If my theory holds true for this year, we should expect Oscar viewership to increase, but not by much. The two films that are likely to win Best Picture this year are The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Although predicting who will win may be challenging, it is hard to deny that both films have not performed spectacularly at the box office. The Shape of Water has only received 65 million, and Three Billboards has only received 90 million as of now. All other nominees have not made impressive showings at the box office either (yes Get Out did very well for the month of February, but in the grand scheme of returns, it was only a modest success). On top of that, there aren’t any real changes made to the Oscars this year. If I were to guess the amount of viewers today, not barring some sort of change in circumstance, I would put the number around 35 or 36 million. If my theory does not hold true though (which is still possible since the broader correlation is weak), this can be completely up in the air.

I for one am looking forward to the Oscars though. I care a lot about my predictions, and personally enjoy the idea of celebrating movies for the past year. This year has been an especially good year for movies. I also thought that Jimmy Kimmel did a very good job hosting last year (especially during the Best Picture debacle) and I look forward to seeing him again. Whether or not you enjoy the Oscars though, I hope that you all look forward to enjoying movies of the past, present, and movies to come.

Further Reading

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