“Success” in the film industry can mean a lot of different things. Critical acclaim and box office receipts often don’t line up. Sometimes, in fact, there’s a huge difference between how revered a film is and how much money it makes. Some Oscar winning films actually pulled in pretty low numbers. Here are some of the lowest grossing Oscar winners in Best Picture history.
The 1995 historical drama Braveheart starring Mel Gibson took in $75,545,647 at the North American box office, which isn’t that impressive (many blockbusters make more than that in one weekend). With a production budget of $72 million, it wasn’t a big financial hit. Worldwide ticket sales helped fill the coffers, especially after the film cleaned up at the awards shows. The film was nominated for ten Academy Awards and ended up taking five of them: Best Director, Best Picture, Best Makeup, Best Cinematography, and Best Sound Editing. The acclaimed film has been critiqued for not being historically accurate, though.
2. The Last Emperor
The Bernardo Bertulocci film The Last Emperor was only released in 877 movie theaters, and pulled in just $43,984,000 in the U.S. box office. It didn’t actually enter the top ten at the box office until it had been showing for eight weeks, which is quite unusual. The artsy biographical film eventually caught on and ended up winning all nine Oscars that it was nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound, Best Adapted Screenplay. It’s worth watching this almost 3 hour film, if you have the patience.
3. No Country For Old Men
In 2007 No Country For Old Men made $74,273,505 at the box office, but many critics suggest that it is the best Coen brother’s film to date. The 2007 film won four Academy Awards that year for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay. The film also won three BAFTA’s, and was listed as the AFI Movie of the Year. Many people consider it one of the best films of the 2000s, even if it wasn’t a huge financial success.
4. Annie Hall
Annie Hall was written and directed by Woody Allen who also starred in it alongside Diane Keaton. Ultimately the film was named the second best romantic comedy of all time by the American Film Institute, but it only made $38,251,425 at the box office. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Actress. It’s a must-see classic.
The 2004 film Crash beat out films like Brokeback Mountain at the Oscars, despite it only making $54,557,348 at the box office. The ensemble drama was about racial and social tensions in Los Angeles and interwove multiple storylines. The film received six Academy Award nominations and won three for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Film Editing. It was also nominated for nine BAFTA awards and won two, and also won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. After its award season success, more people went to see it, but it was never what anyone would consider a blockbuster hit.
In 1958, the musical romantic comedy Gigi won nine Oscars which set all kinds of records at the time. The film took home only $7,321,000 at the box office, and if we adjust for inflation that’s about $59,970,389. After the film was first screened, they decided to make some changes that would require more money and eleven days of reshoots. It ended up only making a profit of $1,983,000. The film won nine Academy Awards which was the first to do so, but then Ben-Hur broke that record with eleven wins just the following year.
7. The Great Ziegfeld
The 1936 musical drama The Great Ziegfeld about the entertainer Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. beat out its competition at the Oscars. It was actually the first musical film in history to recognize an actor for an Academy Award (Luise Rainer won for Best Actress). The film made a paltry $3,000,000 in the U.S. at the time, which adjusted for inflation is about $51,094,100. Low for today’s standards, but it was actually one of the most successful films of the 1930s.
8. The Artist
2011’s The Artist was a modern day black and white silent film in the romantic comedy genre, which doesn’t really appeal to a wide audience these days. It certainly was critically acclaimed nonetheless. The film only made $44,671,682 at the box office, but was nominated for ten Academy Awards. It won five of those, including the coveted Best Picture statue. The art house film was also nominated for six Golden Globes and won three, was nominated for twelve BAFTA’s and won seven, and also took home a Best Actor award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Critics loved it. The mass audience, not so much.
9. It Happened One Night
The film It Happened One Night was released the same year as Cleopatra and it got overshadowed by that one at the box office, however it won Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture at the Oscars that year. Quite an accomplishment for the screwball romantic comedy. It was the first film to win all five big awards, which wouldn’t happen again until One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975. The picture only made $2,500,000, which adjusted for inflation is about $44,167,164. Peanuts by today’s standards.
10. An American in Paris
1951’s An American in Paris managed to take home the award for Best Picture the same year that Casablanca sweept pretty much everything else at the Academy Awards. At the time, the film made $4,531,000 which when adjusted for inflation is just about $41,255,800. The musical spent almost half a million dollars of its budget of $2,724,000 on the climax of the film, a 17-minute ballet dance. Audience attention spans certainly have changed over the years. Even Black Swan didn’t try that.
The romantic comedy film Marty was actually written for TV in 1955. It made $4,000,000 at the box office which adjusted for inflation is only $35,330,000. In addition to winning the Oscar for Best Picture, it was also the fourth American film to come out on top at the Cannes Film Festival, and was the first film to be awarded the Palme d’Or (by a unanimous vote no less).
12. All the King’s Men
In 1949 All the King’s Men was a super low grossing film at $3,500,000, which adjusted for inflation is $34,814,117. It was a critical darling, however, and won three Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actress, as well as being nominated in four other categories. The 1946 Robert Penn Warren novel has been rated the 36th greatest novel of the 20th century by Modern Library. It was a pretty big deal, despite the fact that a lot of people didn’t feel like seeing it in the theater.
When Hamlet hit theaters in 1948, patrons didn’t seem too enthused to watch their Shakespeare on screen. The film only made $3,075,000 when adjusted for inflation is $30,205,942, but it won Oscars for both Best Picture and Best Actor (for the esteemed Lawrence Olivier), as well as receiving a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Some people thought it was the best cinematic take on Shakespeare, while others were irritated by the fact that it cut out two hours of the Bard’s content.
15. The Hurt Locker
2009’s The Hurt Locker only grossed $18.6 million, but it went on to win Best Picture at the Oscars over Avatar, which was a huge surprise to many people. Not only that, but the film’s director Kathryn Bigelow (Avatar director James Cameron’s ex wife, btw) became the first woman to ever win for Best Director. Hard to imagine, but true. Its low box office take was partially due to the fact that it was only released in 535 theaters, as opposed to Avatar’s 3,400 screens. It eventually made a bit more money due to the Oscar boost, but from a financial standpoint, the film was no cash cow.
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