You’re Not Crazy: Oscar Movies Have Gotten More Oscar-y Recently

From left: American Sniper, The Imitation Game, and Selma. Photo: Warner Bros, Paramount Pictures and Studio Canal

Doesn't it feel like every year Oscar movies fit more and more snugly into the same narrow mold? You're not wrong, says UCLA sociologist Gabriel Rossman, who alongside his colleague Oliver Schilke studied the economic motivations of awards season. As part of their research, Rossman and Schilke attempted to come up with a tangible metric to measure the "Oscar-ness" of every Hollywood film released between 1985 and 2009. They analyzed each film on IMDb, compared its characteristics to those of the Oscar-nominated films of the five previous years, and found that, when it came to genre, "the rank order stayed the same over time, but the effect got bigger." In other words, movies with some combination of the four top genre categories — biography, drama, history, and war — have always gotten the most nominations, but over time they've slowly been crowding out everything else. Of the eight films up for Best Picture this year, The Imitation Game hits all four categories — though IMDb disputes that it's about war — while American Sniper, The Theory of Everything, and Selma fit three. (Interestingly, Birdman and Boyhood, the category's two front-runners, don't really fit the mold, but we're only talking about nominations here.)

Eight more Oscar facts we learned from talking to Rossman:

1. The Oscar race takes the form of a "Tullock lottery."
A Tullock lottery is a model from economics in which every entrant pays some sort of cost for participating, but only a small few reap the rewards. Rossman compares it to lobbying: "Imagine you’re an industry, and you hire a lobbyist to get some big tax write-off that will save your industry a bunch of money. If you get it, it’s worth far more than the amount of money spent on lobbyists. But if you can’t get it, and Congress doesn’t pass your law, your lobbyist doesn’t give a refund."

Rossman noticed this same pattern in awards season, as producers sacrifice commercial appeal in the hopes of making a movie Oscar voters will like. "Audiences don’t necessarily want to see Sean Penn staring into a camera looking constipated, but that is the kind of thing that attracts Academy voters," he says. "If they like it, then you make a ton of money. If they don’t like it, then you’re basically out that money."

2. The number of prestige movies is at an equilibrium.
Rossman and Schilke compared box-office success to Oscar appeal and found that "it precisely balances out" in expected value. Which makes sense: If the expected value were negative, Hollywood would stop making Oscar movies; if it were positive, they wouldn't stop making them. "Basically," says Rossman, "Hollywood makes exactly the right number of high-Oscar-appeal movies and low-Oscar-appeal movies." (The duo generally discounted the emotional value of winning an Oscar. As Rossman puts it, "Actors or directors or screenwriters have a lot of pride wrapped up in the Oscars. That’s not necessarily the case for financiers, [who are making] much more of a rational calculation.")

3. Overall, awards season is good for the diversity of the industry as a whole.
Like a lot of sociologists, Rossman is good at imagining a counterfactual universe, one in which the Oscars had never been born. "The only thing that’s going on then is that depressing/challenging movies make less money," he says. "Assuming that the supply curve still operates in Hollywood,  you would see people leave that part of the industry and there’d be fewer depressing/challenging movies. There’d only be movies about giant robots hitting each other. But in our world, that there is a road to success for depressing/challenging movies provides a way that people can make these movies and have a chance at making a profit." Meanwhile, producers who don't care about Oscars can simply sit them out, relaxing with their giant piles of money.

4. But there's an even crazier counterfactual, where the Oscars move to a ranked system.
A way to remove the hazards of the Tullock lottery would be to transition the Oscars to a ranked list, similar to the way the U.S. News & World Report treats law schools. If that happened, Rossman says, things would get weird: "Then every movie would try to rise up in the rankings. Maybe in the middle of Transformers someone stops to give a moving soliloquy about how their grandfather was a sharecropper."

5. The least Oscar-y Best Picture winner was Silence of the Lambs.
As a horror film released in February, Silence didn't fit the traditional mold of an Oscar darling. Neither did Babe, which racked up seven nominations (with only one win) in 1996. But, Rossman cautions, out of the films released the same year, both of those movies ranked in the middle of the pack in terms of Oscar appeal. In the time period studied, only six movies that scored significantly less awards-y than the average film of their year earned a major nomination: Away From Her, Borat, Hustle & Flow, In & Out, Street Smart, and Ulee’s Gold

6. Financially, more Oscar movies should be released before December.
This year, both The Grand Budapest Hotel and Boyhood hit theaters ahead of the traditional Oscar season. Rossman says that more movies should follow their lead. "It’s probably not the best strategy to release your movies all right around Christmas if they're all targeting the same audience," he argues. "Even if there was an audience of a certain size for, say, movies that are biopics about overcoming oppression, presumably those people can only see one or two movies a week, and if the calendar is entirely crowded around Christmas, maybe just to avoid the competition you’d be better off putting out in March, when you’re not competing with any other prestige films." Even if they don't get that Oscar bump, the financial benefits might be worth it.

7. But that doesn't mean he agrees with our proposal for seeded nominations.
Back in January, our own Adam Sternbergh came up with a plan to fix the Oscars: Have seeded nominations, with one Best Picture nominee from each season and then one wild card released anywhere in the year. Rossman is skeptical that would alleviate the glut of Oscar movies in December. "It might have less of an effect than you guys expect," he explained. "There are two reasons to release your movie at Christmas if you’re trying for an Oscar. One is because you think it’ll be more fresh in the voters' minds, because the Academy members simply don’t remember what came out in February. The other reason is because you’re better able to commercially exploit it if you’re still in theaters."

8. The model isn't better at predicting the Oscars than anyone else.
"The point of my model is to explain why certain things are high in Oscar appeal, and to kind of disentangle what was in there at the point it was green-lit versus what is the buzz around its reputation," Rossman says. "For simply knowing what's going to win an Oscar, there's no substitute for the opinion of experts." And hey, what do you know — we've got one of those right here!