On the eve of the Oscar nominations, slated to be declared Jan 16, here comes a fascinating study that reveals the logic behind tough decisions studios make to get an Oscar nomination.
After analysing 25 years worth of data on mainstream cinema, two researchers have discovered that filmmakers that are likely to appeal to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences face the same risk-and-reward structure as lobbyists who contribute to political candidates as elections are near.
According to Gabriel Rossman and Oliver Schilke from University of California, Los Angeles, "the pursuit of Academy Awards, much like the pursuit of favourable regulation, is characterised by an economic structure where players make costly bids".
"You pursue this thing that's valuable, and you may or may not get it. If you don't get it, you don't get your money back. But if you do get it, the results are really valuable," added Rossman, who is based in UCLA's college of letters and science.
In the latest study, appeared in the journal American Sociological Review, they used a Tullock lottery - a model economists have used to analyse political lobbying - to interpret the costs and benefits of making movies with so-called 'Oscar appeal'.
Using online Internet Movie Database (IMDb) records on nearly 3,000 Oscar-nominated films released between 1985 and 2009, they gathered descriptions of the thematic elements of each movie, which IMDb describes as 'genres" and plot 'keywords'.
The genres of drama, war, history and biography were strong predictors of getting Oscar nominations, as were plot keywords involving political intrigue, disabilities, war crimes and show business, the study revealed.
The researchers also recorded details such as the time of year the movie was released - release toward year's end is the strongest predictor of a nomination - and what kind of studio was involved, it added.
Using these variables, Rossman and Schilke built an algorithm that strongly predicts the number of Oscar nominations a movie would get.
"The algorithm shows Oscar appeal, or how many Oscar nominations we would expect you to get based on how similar your film is to movies that recently got nominated," said Schilke.
The sociologists then used box office receipts and production costs to determine the studio's rate of return on their investment.
"Movies that get nominated for an Academy Award enjoy a considerable bounce in ticket sales. 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," said the researchers.
"We found that audiences do not like kinds of aesthetics that are characteristic of Oscar-worthy movies," Rossman said.
"The movies tend to be serious and depressing, and audiences do not like that, so making movies for Oscars is a riskier strategy," added Rossman, an associate professor of sociology.