How can you tell that a film has been successful or not? One of the two easiest ways are either looking at the aggregate scores (on Metacritic, Rotten Tomatoes or IMDb) or looking at the amount of box office revenue achieved. And often times, you can observe a discrepancy between these two: the more earnings that a film has (and hence, the more popular it is on a worldwide scale), the fewer chances it has to have extremely positive scores. Exceptions exist, of course – just look at Lord of the Rings, Saving Private Ryan, Braveheart or Silence of the Lambs – all Best Picture Academy Award winners, with significant earnings. However, most of the time, and even more so recently, this hasn’t been the case.
The mainstream current is shaky
If you take a look at the highest-grossing productions of any given year, you can see a trend in the type of film that generally makes its way on those lists. Generally, they are high-budget superhero films, sci-fi flicks with a lot of CGI, family-friendly comedies or animations, some horrors, and the like. This is because their theme or structure tends to appeal to the lowest common denominator, or at least reconcile various interests and attention spans. But, unless they’re so objectively excellent, they will polarise audiences, and their score average will be influenced by the extreme scores on either side of the scale. A considerable amount of the highest-grossing films hold IMDb ratings of between 6 and 7, and rarely go over 8, just because of this. Thus, earnings as predictor of quality? Not so much.
It doesn’t take a huge budget to make a masterpiece
The idea that you have to invest a lot in order to make an excellent movie that will stand the test of time and win you some major awards is false. This has been seen increasingly so over the past years: Best Picture winners at the Academy Awards, Golden Globes or BAFTAs have often been made on meager budgets. Look at some of the most recent ones, Moonlight ($4 million), Spotlight ($20 million), Birdman ($17 million), Boyhood ($4 million), 12 Years a Slave ($17 million), The Artist ($15 million) or No Country for Old Men ($25 million). The likely winner of this year, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was also made on a $12 million budget. Similarly, if you look at at usual winners of Cannes and European Film Awards, you’ll see the same trend, even more prominently. Clearly, spending tens and hundreds of millions on productions doesn’t guarantee their quality.
Highest quality doesn’t always reap highest rewards
Does this mean that all high-budget productions are poor quality? Not at all! However, while also keeping the above point in mind, we can also see that all these award winners do not get awarded that much at the box office instead. Moonlight only gathered $65 million worldwide, Birdman barely hit the $100 million mark, Boyhood got $45 million, whereas Spotlight only managed to gross about $90 million. In fact, of all the Best Picture nominees for the Golden Globes, only Dunkirk currently has a revenue of over $50 million (a whooping $525 million, to be precise). The return is more than decent in most cases, but it also clearly shows that there’s no direct correlation between the quality of a film and how well it will perform at the box office. Why so? Well, Birdman has it all figured out – its full name is, after all, Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.