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This Is the Best Picture Winner That Made the Most at the Box

Aug 25, 2023

This classic brought in the cash.

There is a fallacy among the general movie-going audience that financially prosperous, crowd-pleasing films are wholly dismissed at the Academy Awards. This sentiment of the Oscars being staunchly anti-populist cemented itself over the last decade, where it became standard for Best Picture winners to garner a paltry gross at the box office, especially domestically. In this case, it is worth noting that, adjusted for inflation, the most financially successful film in American history, Gone with the Wind, additionally went home with the prize of Best Picture in 1940.

Considering that the majority of blockbusters in the last decade belong to franchise installments and/or comic book adaptations, a market of films the Academy has never been drawn to, it will certainly appear on the outskirts that the awards body is nothing but a stuck-up group of intellects who turn their noses up at blockbusters. There was a time, not too long ago when adult-oriented dramas and "prestige" films were routinely box-office hits. Take films like Rain Man, Schindler's List, Forrest Gump, Gladiator, Chicago, and, of course, Titanic, for example. All of these films achieved the highest honor of the most revered awards body in the nation and made a healthy profit. However, vaulting over the triumph of Gone with the Wind, a film released 84 years ago, appears to be insurmountable.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name by Margaret Mitchell, a film adaptation was quickly recognized as a valuable commodity. The storied and troubled production of the 1939 movie is an epic story on its own. At the height of the studio system in Golden Age Hollywood, mega-producer David O. Selznick was the architect of the big-screen adaptation. Selznick played musical chairs with his selected directors, first firing George Cukor, then hiring the eventually credited director, Victor Fleming, who also was temporarily replaced by Sam Wood. After delays caused by Selznick's patient hold-out to secure Clark Gable, an extensive casting process of unknown actresses for the part of Scarlet O'Hara (which went to Vivien Leigh), and a narrow window for post-production to meet the expected release date, Gone with the Wind arrived and never amounted to anything less than a towering American cultural touchstone.

At the 12th Academy Awards, the night belonged to Gone with the Wind, winning 10 statues (two were honorary awards) out of 13 nominations. Along with winning Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Actress, the most significant honor went to Hattie McDaniel, who became the first African-American to win an Oscar for her supporting role as Mammy. Of course, for as resonant as the film remains in the greater culture, controversies, and contemporary retrospectives have lingered with Gone with the Wind as much as the iconic line, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." It is undoubtedly jarring to experience art that romanticizes the Confederacy and Antebellum South as deeply as much as this film. Its negation of the horrors of slavery attempts to re-write history toward a picturesque portrayal of the Confederate cause as a noble endeavor. Despite Gone with the Wind's many problems, it is an important and formative piece of cinema history.

Lost in the justifiable reexamination of the classic film and its misguided acts of censorship is Gone with the Wind's monumental box-office performance. The current worldwide lifetime gross for the Best Picture winner stands at just over $400 million, a near-50-50 split between domestic and international gross. When adjusted for inflation in 2023 money, it is estimated that the domestic gross of the film would soar to $1.81 billion. As of 2023, no film has ever reached a billion dollars in gross exclusively in the United States. As for worldwide, Gone with the Wind would earn nearly $4 billion in modern times. As of today, and for the foreseeable future, the Best Picture-winning classic is the highest-grossing film of all time when accounting for inflation.

A vital thread to Gone with the Wind's impressive box-office statistics is its expansive run in movie theaters upon initial release. Due to its extreme popularity, and the general nature of the medium regarding the lack of home video distribution, the film played in theaters for roughly four years. During this run, reports show that approximately 60 million tickets were purchased, equating to roughly half of the U.S. population in the late 1930s-early 1940s. Only contributing to its historic financial prosperity, the film was frequently re-released throughout the 20th century. If there was any doubt of its cultural impact, in 1976, the film's network television premiere on NBC 47.5 Nielson rating and 65% audience share, the highest ever at the time.

As many are aware, inflation has proven to be quite a burden on American consumers. If the theater-going audiences were paying contemporary rates to witness this once-in-a-lifetime historical epic romance on the big screen, Gone with the Wind would run away as the capitalist champ, no questions asked. There would be no competition between Avatar and Avengers: Endgame for the top spot at the global box office. Speaking of Avatar, James Cameron is something of a money-making king himself. Gone with the Wind isn't the only romantic period epic with a tumultuous production to ascend to financial supremacy and earn the crowning achievement from the Academy Awards.

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In terms of straight gross, without the caveat of inflation adjustment, Titanic is the highest-grossing Best Picture winner. Worldwide, the story of star-crossed lovers on the disastrous voyage across the Atlantic is the 4th highest-grosser of all time at $2.2 billion, with two of the spots ahead of it being occupied by other James Cameron movies. Its $674 million in the U.S. isn't too shabby either, and all in all, when properly comparing it to Gone with the Wind at a level playing field, the film is #5 on the all-time adjusted-for-inflation ranking. Similar to the Selznick production, Cameron's film had incredible legs during its theatrical run. For a whopping 15 weeks, the film was #1 at the box office, with the run lasting through April 1998. Titanic's Oscar performance was equally dominant, winning 11 Oscars out of 14 nominations.

Every once in a great while, there is a preeminent case of a motion picture capturing the imagination of broad audiences and the affection of critics and awards bodies. In a current film landscape that has lost a substantial slice of cultural homogeneity, this phenomenon is especially scarce. However, a vast separation between populous hits and critical darlings should not be the standard. History has proven that the two sensibilities can coexist. In the most triumphant cases, we are granted the artistic landmarks of Gone with the Wind and Titanic.

Gone with the WindRain ManSchindler's ListForrest GumpGladiatorChicagoTitanicMargaret MitchellDavid O. Selznick George CukorVictor FlemingSam WoodClark GableVivien LeighHattie McDanielAvatar Avengers: Endgame James Cameron RELATED: