Can ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ & ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ Save The Oscars From A Ratings Slump?

For the first time in a long time, the highest grossing film of the year globally, Avatar: The Way of Water, is nominated for Best Picture at the 95th annual Academy Awards. What’s more, the year’s No. 2 film, Top Gun: Maverick, is also in contention for the top prize at this year’s ceremony.

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Could that be the key to saving the Oscars from its ratings slump? 

It’s no secret that the Academy Awards, like every other awards show, has taken a hit in ratings over the past several years. Last year’s 94th annual ceremony marked the second least-watched and lowest-rated telecast in Oscars history with an audience of just 16.6M. It came in second only to 2021’s virtual ceremony, which could only muster about 10.4M viewers. 

But even before the pandemic, the Oscars were on a steady decline when it came to viewers. 2020’s 23.6M was nothing to scoff at when just a few years earlier the viewership had been nearly double. 

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While there is definitely more than one reason why the Oscars aren’t capturing the audience they used to, it’s hard not to notice that it’s also becoming increasingly rare that the nominations for the top prizes reflect films that worldwide audiences are actually watching. That, no doubt, plays a part in whether or not people want to tune in from their living rooms to see who wins. 

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At the 2010 Oscars, Avatar was the highest grossing movie of the previous year with $2.7B — which, at the time, was an unprecedented number that remained untouchable for a decade until Avengers: Endgame came along. Up was also nominated for Best Picture that year, after coming in at No. 6 at the yearly box office grossing $735M. Both lost to The Hurt Locker, which, in comparison, grossed $49.2M worldwide. 

That year’s ceremony was watched by 41.7M people. For the next several years, the audience hovered right around the 40M mark, hitting a high in 2014 with 43.7M people. While that year’s Best Picture nominees didn’t include any box office heavy hitters, it was a year when the nominated films were stacked with some of the industry’s biggest stars, including Matthew McConaughey, Leonardo DiCaprio, Joaquin Phoenix, Sandra Bullock and Christian Bale. 

The last time that the highest grossing film of the year was nominated for Best Picture was in 2011, when Toy Story 3 was in contention for the prize. Inception, which was No. 4 at the global box office, was also nominated. That show took home 37.6M viewers.

Since 2014, viewership has begun to take a downturn. In 2018, the Oscars hit a then-historic low of just 26.5M viewers. Not a single Best Picture nominee was among the top 15 highest-grossing films of the year. That was one year after the infamous envelope snafu that awarded La La Land (17th highest-grossing film) the Best Picture trophy when it should have gone to Moonlight (No. 106). 

Even that controversy — which had a media cycle resurgence as the next show approached — couldn’t entice people to tune in the following year, when the closest the Best Picture nominees got to reflecting the current cultural moment was with Get Out (which was No. 37 on the worldwide box office list). 

The following year, in 2019, Oscars viewership was back up to nearly 30M. Is it any surprise that Black Panther, which was a historic film that came in at No. 2 at the worldwide box office grossing $1.3B, was also nominated for Best Picture?

Since then, the Best Picture contenders have included some popular films, most notably Joker in 2020 and Dune last year. But none that have captured worldwide audiences like an Avatar or a Black Panther. While the Avatar sequel made the cut for Best Picture again this year, the Black Panther followup, Wakanda Forever, #6 in the 2022 worldwide boxoffice, missed out on the top category after scoring a PGA nomination alongside Avatar: The Way of Water and Top Gun: Maverick.

The Way of Water is still in theaters, which means it’s not only continuing to capture audiences but it’s also staying top of mind for potential Oscars viewers. After becoming a hit at the box office, Top Gun: Maverick broke debut records when it landed on Paramount+ in December. It begs the question as to whether having these films in contention for the top prize will pique anyone’s interest enough to get them to tune in for the ceremony in March.

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