That’s the main conclusion of a new article (pre-publication version here) by Gabriel Rossman and Oliver Schilke in the American Sociological Review. If you’re a film maker and you want to maximize your chances of winning an Oscar, you are best advised to focus on some kinds of themes rather than others. Michael Bay films involving mechanical monstrosities ravaging major U.S. cities are unlikely to win Oscars. Movies about sympathetic historical figures triumphing over adversity will have a much better chance of getting nominations. Furthermore, films that get Oscar nominations are likely to get public attention. Members of the public don’t have time to gather detailed information on good movies and bad ones, and often rely on Oscars as a crude proxy for movie quality. Hence, if your movie gets Oscar nominations, it may sell a lot of tickets.
So is it a good idea for movie makers to pursue Oscar nominations? Rossman and Schilke’s research suggests that it probably is not. Rossman and Schilke use data from the Internet Movie Database to identify the themes of a very large set of movies. They then look to see how well each movie’s themes match the themes of Oscar nominees in the five years before the movie was released, to figure out how well the movie matches the “Oscar formula,” while also accounting for other factors (e.g. the studio that released the movie) which could affect the movie’s Oscar chances. This allows them to figure out the ‘Oscar appeal’ of each movie in their dataset. On Rossman and Schilke’s measure, movies like The Hottie and the Nottie have very low Oscar appeal, while movies like Out of Africa have high appeal.
The problem is that there are lots of movies with Oscar appeal, but far fewer movies that get nominated. Because the Oscar nominee list imposes a sharp cutoff (movies either get nominated or they don’t), movies that just failed to make the Oscar nomination cut are likely to do far worse than movies that just about got on the list, even if the two are of more or less equal quality. The financial losses of the failures counterbalance the success of the nominees. As Rossman and Schilke conclude:
..net of achieving Oscar nominations, Oscar appeal has a negative effect on financial returns. In essence, there are two types of high Oscar appeal movies—those that do not receive nominations (and tend to lose money) and those that do receive nominations (and tend to make money)—but taken together these two types of movies are no more nor less profitable than movies with low Oscar appeal.