A new analysis of Oscar nomination data by sociologists at the University of California-Los Angeles, which will be published in the February edition of the American Sociological Review, reveals what variables will likely wind up getting the Academy to give a film a nod.
Armed with data from the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) on almost 3,000 films that opened between 1985 and 2009, the researchers constructed an algorithm that can spit out a movie’s “Oscar appeal,” based partly on a co-efficient that accounts for the five years of previous choices. If you are an aspiring filmmaker and really, really want an Oscar, try adhering to the following:
1. Stick to the genres of “drama, war, history, and biography.” Avoid: “horror, science fiction, action, and family.”
2. Plot points vary a bit, but try crafting the story around “political intrigue, disabilities, war crimes, and show business.” Best to avoid plot points like “animal attack, sword fight, and eaten alive.”
3. Release the movie near the end of the year. “This finding is consistent with the practice of Oscar-contending films having a qualifying run (i.e., a token theatrical release) around Christmas.”
4. Hand the project to the independent division of your enormous studio. “We find that the most advantageous type of distributor for attaining Oscar nominations is the ‘independent films’ subsidiary of a major studio (e.g., Sony Pictures Classics or Focus Features). These specialty divisions outperform mainstream divisions of major studios and true independent distributors.”
5. Go for the R rating. “This rating gives more artistic flexibility, which tends to be favored by prize voters,” the authors note.
6. Recruit directors with previous Oscar nominations. “In our analysis, prior nominations are statistically significant for directors but not for writers or actors.”
Do all of those, and you’ll maybe get a nomination, or maybe not. There are some outliers that didn’t make the cut. According to the study:
Some examples of films from various parts of the distribution will serve to illustrate the metric’s face validity. Examples of films from the left tail (i.e., with extremely low Oscar appeal) include The Hottie & the Nottie (2008) and The Foot Fist Way (2006). Examples from near the mean/median include Guinevere (1999) and How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998). In the extreme right tail we find many films that achieved multiple nominations, like Out of Africa (1985) and The Aviator (2004). However, many films with high Oscar appeal did not actually receive any nominations. For instance, the film with the very highest estimated Oscar appeal in our analysis, Come See the Paradise (1990) (which had a qualifying run and is about Japanese-American internment during World War II), achieved no nominations (and had a paltry box office).
Based on analysis of box office performance, it’s clear that making an Oscar-worthy film takes a bit of a financial risk. Lofty dramas on deep subjects can end up being snubbed, and they won’t perform the same way action-packed hits with no intention of winning awards do. The negative effect is canceled out on average, though, because getting nominations can actually make a film into a commercial success. “In some circumstances, the box office receipts of films with nominations are two to three times higher than comparable films that don’t get nominations,” a press release accompanying the study notes. If that wasn’t the case, studios probably wouldn’t bet as much on sophisticated films with no mass appeal. “We’ve found that audiences don’t like the kinds of aesthetics that are characteristic of Oscar-worthy movies,” Gabriel Rossman, one of the study’s authors, said in the statement. “The movies tend to be serious and depressing, and audiences don’t like that, so making Oscar-y movies is a riskier strategy than the average moviegoer might appreciate.”
The reward structure of the Oscars is ideal, the researchers argue, because it encourages studios to make films they would never otherwise pick up without discouraging terrible blockbusters in the process. “By creating rewards for prize-seeking while not harming other strategies, prizes can increase a field’s breadth,” the authors write. “The role of the Oscars in Hollywood implies that biopics in which the historical protagonist overcomes oppression can coexist with popcorn movies about robots fighting aliens. This contrasts with such continuous judgment devices as rankings and critic ratings, which affect the vast majority of producers regardless of their current position.”
As for tomorrow’s nominations? In an email to the Pacific Standard, Rossman hazarded a guess:
My guesstimate predictions are pretty much in line with everyone else’s. Take a movie like “12 Years a Slave.” It came out late in the year, was distributed by the independent division of a major studio, has genres of drama and biopic, and a lot of keywords like “slavery” and “rape” that are disproportionately associated with the Oscars.
As we show in the paper, our statistically derived predictions tend to associate pretty well with the intuitive judgments of Entertainment Weekly writers so in the absence of having rerun the numbers for this year, I’m gonna say that whatever has a lot of buzz this year probably would score well on our model.