Oscar {data} Party

Fathom is a team of diverse interests – and among our crew, there are several of us who are really into movies. During the weeks leading up to the 90th Academy Awards that aired this past Sunday, we looked through twenty years of data on Best Picture nominees, and have put together a collection of
some of the results.

Oscar data is interesting to work with because in some ways it’s highly organized and straightforward. These are the categories, these are the nominees, these are the winners. Here is what each film cost to produce, what its box office returns were, what its aggregate score is after being rated by thousands of people on IMDB. Yet if you watched the Oscars this weekend, you saw actors and cinematographers and writers and directors all attempt to articulate how profoundly these movies speak to the human condition. Each of these films are steeped in narrative – not only the plot of the film itself, but every part of the process where a spark of an idea was (over many years and with great labor) transformed into a feature film. Layers like these lend great depth to flat numbers.

I was particularly interested in production budgets – the range spans several hundred million dollars, but nearly all of the best picture winners from recent years have costed only around $20 million. The two outliers are Argo ($45 million) and Moonlight, which at $1.5 million, is the lowest production cost of any best picture winner in 90 years (taking inflation into account). 

Flowchart noting recurring themes among Best Picture nominees. Don’t worry, Tom Hanks will fix everything.

From the list of nominees, I started pulling films together by subject matter and found some interesting pairings. It seemed that certain types of films tended to run long. Certain wars feature more prominently than others, and movies about racism are frequently set within specific eras of the past, rather than present-day. The flowchart above maps some of these findings. It also turns out that the movie posters for Seabiscuit and War Horse share strikingly similar compositions.

Initial sketch and final motion version of visualization of film lengths 

It was also interesting to take a look at the top-grossing films of each year, and compare this set to the films that won Best Picture. The Return of the King is the only sequel in the last two decades to win best picture, whereas most of the top grossing films are many incarnations deep into their respective worlds. Captain America: Civil War is the 13th film set in that particular Marvel universe, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part II are the eighth installments in their respective franchises. Audiences are clearly willing to turn out in larger numbers for something they’re familiar with, and the ticket sales of the Best Picture winners look pretty diminutive by comparison.

2018 Best Picture nominees, with the number of nominations orbiting a central ellipse that correlates in size with production costs.

This group of studies includes interactive sketches, motion studies, digital studies, and cut paper. With the end of the awards comes the end of the project – for now – but there are countless stories and methods of representation for the data. 

Founded in 2010 by Ben Fry, Fathom Information Design works with clients to understand complex data through interactive tools and software for mobile devices, the web, and large format installations. Out of its studio in Boston, Fathom partners with Fortune 500s and non-profit organizations across sectors, including health care, education, financial services, media, technology, and consumer products.

How can we help? hello@fathom.info.