Menus Subscribe Search

The Big Screen

oscarappeal1

(Photo: Public Domain)

How to Win an Oscar Nomination

• January 15, 2014 • 5:46 PM

(Photo: Public Domain)

Sociologists at the University of California-Los Angeles have come up with statistical predictors for getting the nod.

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.

Ryan Jacobs
Associate Digital Editor Ryan Jacobs joined Pacific Standard from The Atlantic, where he wrote for and produced the magazine’s Global and China channels online. Before that, he was a senior editorial fellow at Mother Jones. Follow him on Twitter @Ryanj899.

More From Ryan Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 2 • 4:00 AM

Why Middle School Doesn’t Have to Suck

Some people suspect the troubles of middle school are a matter of age. Middle schoolers, they think, are simply too moody, pimply, and cliquish to be easily educable. But these five studies might convince you otherwise.


September 2 • 3:13 AM

Coming Soon: When Robots Lie


September 2 • 2:00 AM

Introducing the New Issue of ‘Pacific Standard’

The science of self-control, the rise of biblical counseling, why middle school doesn’t have to suck, and more in our September/October 2014 print issue.


September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One third of the United States federal budget for fighting wildfires goes toward one percent of such fires. September/October 2014 big-one-fires-final

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.