Oscars please the audience more than critics

Oscar nominees tend to score higher than average for both viewers and critics, but since 1990 the viewers' opinion has been a better predictor of the winner, according to a CNBC analysis of data from film review site Rotten Tomatoes.

The winning film is liked more by audiences than the average nominee 81 percent of the time, and it is the highest rated film of that year 35 percent of the time. By comparison, the winner is the critical favorite only 12 percent of the time.

Critics and movie goers don't always see eye-to-eye. The 1999 cult favorite "Boondock Saints", for example, was widely panned by critics, but is beloved by 91 percent of the 335,000 audience members who rated it on Rotten Tomatoes.

The same holds true for Oscar nominees for best picture—some are crowd favorites while others are critical darlings. The 1994 classic "Forrest Gump," for example, won over 95 percent of audience members, but was derided by nearly 30 percent of critics. A sampling of reviews included phrases like "heavy-handed," "stupid," "offensive," "morally repugnant," "wearisome as hell," and "a work of purest, blackest evil." It went on to win six Oscars, including best picture.

And critics loved the trained farm animals in "Babe" in 1995 and Helen Mirren's "remarkable" performance in 2006's "The Queen," while audiences were less enthused. Both movies lost in their best picture bids.

The best picture award is arguably one of the more populist awards, because it's the only award voted on by all 6,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the nominating process (other nominees are picked only by their peers within the Academy). Those members are apparently more aligned with the average person who watches movies than the critics paid to review them.

As was the case for 2012's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," a nominee can have a very poor critical score under 50 percent, but no nominee since 1990 has had an audience score under 60 percent. That slight preference for crowd-pleasers seems to carry over into the financial performance of the nominees as well.

La La Land
Source: www.lalaland.movie
La La Land

The best picture award is also more likely to go to movies with higher domestic box office sales, according to CNBC's analysis of data from Rotten Tomatoes and The Numbers, a site tracking movie industry data. That makes sense, considering that audience scores are correlated with both box office sales and winning the prize — the most popular movies will have both higher scores and higher ticket sales. In contrast, critical scores don't seem to be related to box office sales among nominees at all.

Since 2000, the median winner has brought home a box office of over $110 million, about 60 percent more than the median loser. That's likely caused by popularity, not by a boost in sales from winning the award. Movies often see a major bump at the box office after being nominated, but that extra attention has usually died off by the time the winner is selected.

Hidden Figures
Source: 20th Century Fox
Hidden Figures

So far, "La La Land" is widely expected to win the award. The movie won 14 nominations, tied with 1997's Titanic and 1950's "All About Eve" for the most nominations ever. It also won a record 7 Golden Globes, and many earlier awards that tend to predict the best picture Oscar.

Based on audience score and box office figures alone, however, we would expect the best picture winner to be "Hidden Figures." The movie pulled ahead of "La La Land" at the box office earlier this month, earning $146 million so far—the most of any nominee. Meanwhile, "Hidden Figures" Rotten Tomatoes audience score is 94 percent, compared to only 85 percent for the expected front-runner.

It may be a long shot, but we could see a come-from-behind victory this weekend.