Sometimes a question you don’t have the answer to pops into your head and you get really curious about what the answer is. This is one of those times. Everyone knows that critical success and commercial success are not always equal. Some all time classics like The Wizard of Oz didn’t go over like gangbusters upon initial release. But what I was wondering was how many Best Picture winners were money losers?
The answer: only one. And it was . . .
Although other Best Picture winners had varying degrees of success, Cimarron is the only one that was a money loser upon it’s initial release. It didn’t lose much– around $50,000, but it still falls into a category all it’s own. At the time (1931) it broke records at the Oscars, though. It became the first film to be nominated for more than six awards, and remains to this day one of only two movies be nominated in very eligible category. So why did it flop like no other Best Picture winner?
Well, RKO pumped a boatload of money into it.
It does make sense that a film of its type would cost a lot of money to make. The western takes place over the span of forty years, across sprawling and elaborate set pieces. When adjusted for inflation, the film’s $1.43 million budget comes out to around $22 million. And they spent the money on every little thing: one sequence alone required around 50 acres of land (and cameramen) and thousands of extras and cattle.
It contributed to a bad overall year for RKO, who lost $5.6 million overall and was left in dire financial straits. Cimarron itself was the most expensive film the studio had made up to that point.
In later years, Cimarron hasn’t faired so well upon repeat viewings. Conventional wisdom now seems to be that it holds up worse than most, if not all, of the Best Picture winners. As of this writing, it is the lowest rated winner on IMDB, although that obviously isn’t the most reliable metric. Irene Dunne, the film’s star, reportedly didn’t feel too strongly about it later on in her life. Hillel Italie, writing for the Associated Press in 1991, had this to say about the film:
The film was made in 1930 and is about as creaky as an old cabin door. The pasty-faced Dix is almost laughable as a self-important frontiersman, and Dunne shows just a hint of the grace and timing that would make her one of the top actresses of the next 20 years. Also, the grating background music sounds like it was lifted from a ‘Little Rascals’ soundtrack.
So there you have it. If you were as curious as I was about this question, the answer is now here. Cimarron is the only Best Picture winner to lose money.