If the Oscars seem boring and predictable to you this year, then you're in good company. Sociologists have considered the Academy Awards predictable for a long time.
A few weeks ago, I spoke with Gabriel Rossman, a UCLA sociologist with some of the most interesting research on the intersection of economics and pop culture. Rossman has two fascinating papers about the Oscars. The first addressed the tantalizing question: What qualities of a movie best predict Oscars nominations?
Unsurprisingly, the biggest correlation was being in a very serious movie. Considering 172,000 performances listed on IMDB in 20,000 movies, Rossman and co-author Nicole Esparza found that dramas were were nine times more likely to get nominations.
The second and third best predictors both had to do with the size of the competition. When there are fewer films released around awards season, the odds that any one movie gets a nomination increases. This simple principle applies, rather unfortunately, to actresses, as well. It's an industry truism, borne out in the evidence, that women have fewer meaty roles in the types of movies likely to be nominated for an Oscar. That means any one dramatic end-of-year performance by a woman has a higher chance of earning a nomination.
Perhaps the most substantive finding in the paper is that people with high IMDB movie rankings in past movie credits were more likely to work with other stars, doubling their chances at getting a nomination. “Actors are going to look good when they work with talented people," Rossman told the Daily Bruin. "This is an interesting thing since you tend to get talented people working with other talented people, meaning that people will end up looking even better than when just working alone.”
Maybe this seems completely obvious to you: Better actors get better parts and then get to work with better directors (hello, Leonardo DiCaprio). But it's also a classic example of what sociologists call cumulative advantage or the "Matthew Effect," named after the passage in Matthew where Jesus says "For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich." This isn't as simple as the rich getting richer. It's the idea that slightly more talented people get access to higher-quality support for their talents, which greatly multiplies the benefits of their innate advantage (e.g.: smarter students going to colleges with better professors and better career services connections).
The fact that movies with stars get more Oscar attention might be an indication that Hollywood's stars are simply better than its non-stars. But probably not. It's much more likely a sign that (just as you might have suspected) we're bad picking out discrete instances of talent in star-studded projects. This would imply we—or, at least, the Academy—is just as bad at recognizing Oscar-worthy talent in movies without any past Oscar nominees. In both cases, the context overwhelms our ability to recognize individual achievement.
Rossman's second Oscar paper is about audiences and prizes. Some producers really want to win Oscars. These producers would also, presumably, like to make money. The problem is that audiences don't like most movies that are "Academy Award movies"—here defined as late-year releases about serious subjects (like AIDS, slavery, or technological dystopia)—so the business of making an Oscar-y movie is high-risk with dubiously high reward.
Rossman explains it well:
It turns out that audiences dislike movies that are *trying* to get Oscar nominations but really like movies that actually *get* Oscar nominations. By inference, if there were no Oscars to drive box office towards them, there would be far fewer movies about historical protagonists overcoming oppression. Indeed, it looks like Hollywood basically nails it since they make exactly the right number of Oscar-targeted movies that the two effects balance out on average.
To the victors go the spoils, kind of. Best Picture winners can expect a 22 percent raise in box office after a nomination and another 15 percent bump if they win, according to IBISWorld. But the financial calculations probably miss the best reasons to try to make an Oscar movie: To win accolades within the industry, to win access to stars who can make you more money down the line and, just maybe, to bask in the honor of making a truly great film.