Best Picture Oscar winners: is Oppenheimer biggest budget and box office movie to win the award?

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Oppenheimer became the most expensive Best Picture Oscar winner in decades at 96th Academy Awards

Oppenheimer was the clear victor at last night’s 96th Academy Awards, taking home seven Oscar wins from 13 nominations, including for Best Picture, Director, and Supporting Actor. 

The big budget film was one of the biggest box office success stories of 2023, falling behind The Super Mario Bros. Movie and Barbie, but finding much more success than both during awards season.

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It has been years since a film with a budget greater than $50 million won the Best Picture Oscar - the big budget offerings tend to find success in the technical categories (Sound, Visual Effects, etc.), so Oppenheimer’s sweep this year bucked a long-established trend.

Oppenheimer won seven Oscars including Best PictureOppenheimer won seven Oscars including Best Picture
Oppenheimer won seven Oscars including Best Picture | AFP via Getty Images

What is the most expensive film to win Best Picture at the Oscars?

Oppenheimer is the first big-budget Best Picture winner in decades - with a budget of $100 million, no winner has come close in terms of cost since 2006 crime drama The Departed, which had a budget of $90 million.

However, Oppenheimer isn’t close to being the biggest budget Best Picture winner of all time, as 1998 winner Titanic takes that spot, the most expensive film ever at the time of its release, it cost $200 million (more than $300 million today adjusted for inflation) to make the three hour disaster epic.

The far distant second priciest BP winner is Ridley Scott’s 2001 historical drama Gladiator, at $103 million, leaving Oppenheimer to take the third spot, if we don’t factor in inflation. Just behind Oppenheimer is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, with an estimated budget of $94 million.

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These figures dwarf the first ever winner of the award, silent war romance Wings, which was made for $2 million but involved dramatic action sequences filmed on real aeroplanes, and pioneering filming techniques. Even with inflation, the film would have cost a little over $33 million today, and returned $3.8 million at the box office (around $68 million adjusted for inflation). 

Oppenheimer took home Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Supporting ActorOppenheimer took home Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Supporting Actor
Oppenheimer took home Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Supporting Actor | Getty

What is the highest grossing Best Picture winning film?

Not accounting for inflation, which would change the game significantly, Oppenheimer is the third highest grossing Best Picture winner.

Two movies have edged out Nolan’s $954 million box office success, both making more than $1 billion. The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King, the final film in the Peter Jackson trilogy, made $1.14 billion globally and took home 11 Oscars, including Best Director, Score, Adapted Screenplay, and Best Picture.

But the all time record holder for the biggest box office Best Picture winner is James Cameron’s Avatar, which made a staggering $1.8 billion on its original release - the first film to top $1 billion (following re-releases its overall gross is now over $2.2 billion), and was the highest grossing film of all time for more than a decade.

If you were to factor in inflation then plenty of Best Picture winners would surpass Oppenheimer’s box office total, among them Gone with the Wind, The Godfather, The Sound of Music, and Ben-Hur.

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