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Why Best Picture Winners Aren't Hits Anymore

Last year, I read a statistic in the NYT that was so surprising I thought it was a typo:

“Spider-Man: No Way Home” collected $260 million in the United States and Canada on its opening weekend. Total ticket sales for the two countries totaled $283 million, according to Comscore. That means “No Way Home” made up 92 percent of the market. “Nightmare Alley,” which was released on the same weekend, played to virtually empty auditoriums. It took in $2.7 million.

Did all the other movies in theaters really split just 8% of the audience? Scraping domestic box office numbers, it turns out to be both surprising and true:

“No Way Home” Is the First to Collect Over 90% of a Weekend Box Office

This continued beyond opening weekend: over the next three weekends, “No Way Home” continued to take in over half of the box office.

Looking at the superhero sequels at the top of the scatter plot, I initially thought this trend was being driven by Hollywood trying to engineer bigger returns from the biggest blockbusters.

But the pattern is a little more complicated:

Yearly Distribution of Domestic Box Office Receipts by Year

While the top grossing movies have taken a larger share of ticket sales of the last decade, there hasn’t been a smooth increase in top-heaviness over the last 30 years. In 2021, the top five grossing movies took more than a quarter of the year’s total box office — the first time that’s happened since the 80s, when it happened regularly.

What has changed more smoothly that’s caused more weekends to be dominated by a single movie? Extended runs have slowly stopped earning a significant amount of money.

The Biggest Movies Are Making More of Their Money Opening Week

There’s been a bigger change in how media is consumed, beyond the control of Hollywood execs’ green-lighting decisions. Television, streaming and TikTok are increasingly good substitutes for theater going; people don’t “go the movies” anymore, they go to see a specific movie. Superhero movies — which are engineered to create urgency around opening weekend with their franchises, familiar faces, spoilers and massive marketing budgets — have the only formula that can consistently still fill seats.

This change in consumption has also created a best picture Oscar winner sized hole in the bottom right of the chart (adjust the minimum gross slider to see more recent winners).

With other genres playing to mostly empty theaters, there’s no longer a broad audience that can build up word of mouth momentum for an original movie over several weeks. Best picture winners are still slow burning, but they’re no longer hits; even on streaming, Oscar-favorite CODA has been viewed less than a million times.

Inflation adjusted data scraped from Box Office Mojo // chart code