Five key questions – and answers – about the Oscar nominations lottery

(Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

Gabriel Rossman, an associate professor of sociology at UCLA, is one of the co-authors of the new American Sociological Review article on the Oscars discussed in Wednesday’s post. I asked him five questions about how his and Oliver Schilke’s research help us understand the hidden politics of the Academy Awards.

Henry Farrell: Your joint research suggests that Oscar nominations are a risky lottery, where the expected benefits of winning and costs of losing more or less cancel each other out. So why do studios invest so much money and time in chasing nominations?

Gabriel Rossman: It looks like they invest pretty much the right amount in chasing after nominations. This is consistent with ‘public choice’ models of the political process, which tend to predict “rent dissipation.” In these models, rent-seeking industries will tend to invest the right amount in lobbying to equal the risk-adjusted value of the additional benefits they hope to achieve. Similarly it looks like the big bonus from the relatively unlikely outcome of getting nominations is pretty well balanced with the penalty for making an Oscar-relevant film.

HF: How have the incentives to chase after Oscars waxed and waned over the last few decades, and why?

GR: When we originally started the study we expected to see big changes over time, especially with the development of the so-called independent film market in the 1990s. However we were surprised (and I’ll be honest, disappointed) to see that things are actually pretty stable over the period we studied. The weights for how much different aspects of the film count toward Oscar appeal, the distribution of Oscar appeal, and the rewards to Oscar nominations are all pretty stable over time. On the other hand, and this is very tentative since I just checked in response to your question, it looks like the penalties for Oscar appeal are lower in the 1990s, which would be consistent with the “independent” film fad of that period. Exploring changes over time in whether Oscar appeal is profitable and how studios respond by first opening and then shuttering independent divisions could be a good follow-up study. Thanks for suggesting it, I’ll pitch it to my co-author!

HF: Have the changes to Oscar voting over the last few years, which were reportedly designed to give more ‘popular’ films an advantage over arthouse movies, had any measurable impact on studios’ incentives?

GR: My house is close enough to the Academy that I could hear the Board of Governors’ collective cry of despair when the membership nominated “Dark Knight” for supporting actor but not picture, director, or screenplay. This came at the end of a several-year stretch in which the Best Picture nominees were all obscure and the ratings for the telecast had been dropping pretty severely. The fact that the Academy’s executive leadership saw it as a problem that the Oscars were increasingly dominated by films of limited mainstream appeal, and played with the rules to avoid this, is fascinating and one of the things that inspired our research project.

Unfortunately not enough time has yet elapsed to be able to tell whether the Academy’s nomination reforms (as well as other reforms like expanding the membership) had the effect of realigning Oscar appeal to be closer to mainstream appeal. This is why when we started the project in 2011, Oliver and I decided to bracket the reforms by simply stopping the analysis with the 2009 release year, which was the last release year under the old rules. However even at the time we always thought it would be interesting to come back and replicate the analysis after a good five or 10 years had elapsed. So we can’t answer this question yet but might very well be able to in a few years.

Indeed this raises a very interesting issue which is that over the long-run there can be self-defeating tendencies in these kinds of awards. An award becomes a meaningful measure of taste because it reflects things the audience values, but its value in shaping demand invites attempts to game it, by catering to its idiosyncrasies. Over time this leads it to become disconnected from audience values and this in turn diminishes its value to the audience. In “Economy of Prestige,” James English discusses a few instances where prizes kind of go haywire like this, and the executive management of the prize changes the rules or manipulates the composition of the prize jury to keep it from getting too ivory tower.

HF: You suggest that the Oscars create more diversity and range among movies than you would get if there were no prizes. Why is this so?

GR: The kinds of approaches that get Oscar nominations tend to be, in of themselves, bad for box office. As such you’d expect Hollywood to avoid these approaches. However when you factor in the fact that movies that actually get nominations tend to do well, there’s at least the chance of an upside, a road to profitability. And so the upside of nominations means that it actually does make sense to make these films. That’s a little confusing but think of it this way, if it weren’t for lottery tickets occasionally rewarding jackpots, nobody would give a dollar to to the clerk at 7/11 in exchange for a piece of paper with a few numbers on it. That there’s a lottery jackpot means people buy lottery tickets even though they cost a dollar and likewise that there’s an Oscars (and by extension, an Oscars bump) means people make movies that can plausibly get Oscars even though these movies tend to get lower box office aside from the Oscars.

HF: Should there be more prizes like the Oscars in other areas of culture to promote diversity?

GR: There’s certainly no shortage of prizes out there. In Appendix A of Economy of Prestige, English shows that prizes grew exponentially over the 20th century. The trick is creating a prize that attracts attention. If you created the Farrell Prize for Excellence in Addressing International Relations Scholarship in Film, I don’t think we’d suddenly get a bunch of movies about IR professors. Rather, audiences would probably ignore the award, and movie producers would expect this and ignore the prize as well.

However, for the sake of argument, let’s assume we can get audiences (and by extension producers) to care about the award. The implication of such an award would indeed be to diversify the field toward which the award is directed to include not only whatever it is they had been doing but also things covered by the award. Or at least, that’s assuming that the award doesn’t just reward people who were already winning. For instance, I think the Billboard Awards are interesting because they give awards to bestselling records. An award like that isn’t going to create diversity but cumulative advantage. Another thing you can imagine is instead of creating an award you create a ranking, like the ever popular “Best Law Schools” special issues of magazines. To the extent that such rankings become influential they won’t create diversity but instead encourage conformity. The reason is that awards mostly benefit people who most closely resemble what the award is doing but rankings affect everybody. If you’re the #5 law school on U.S. News and World Report you want to be #4 and if you’re #80 you want to be #81 so all law schools do whatever it is that U.S. News implicitly wants them to do. In contrast if you’re trying to get an Oscar you might try harder to get an Oscar, but if you’re making movies about giant robots from outer space pounding the bejeezus out of each other then that’s cool too, and you don’t really need to change what you’re doing, so both popcorn movies and Oscar-targeted movies can coexist.

Henry Farrell is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. He works on a variety of topics, including trust, the politics of the Internet and international and comparative political economy.
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