Home >News >World >The not-so-secret sauce for winning Oscars

With final nominations announced on Monday, the annual Oscars race has entered its last leg ahead of the April 25 grand finale. Films released on streaming or over-the-top (OTT) platforms dominated the nominations, with Netflix’s Mank garnering 10 nominations. Six of the eight best picture contenders were made by directors new to the Oscars shortlists this year.

Yet, as things change, much remains unchanged when it comes to the awards race. As in previous years, dramas won most nominations. In line with past trends, most nominations are very recent films. Half of the top flicks were released commercially just weeks ahead of the nomination date.

Such predictable traits of best picture Oscar nominees were the subject of a 2014 study by sociologists Gabriel Rossman and Oliver Schilke, who came up with an algorithm to determine a film’s “Oscars appeal" using shortlists from 1985 to 2009. Major studios, and now even OTT platforms seem to have figured out the key ingredients for success, putting in large budgets to cook up Oscar nominees every year. Pejoratively called “Oscar-baiting", this strategy pays: once a film gets an Academy nomination, it also earns revenue for studios through greater sales. This is why studios put their weight behind movies more likely to be nominated.

Take a film’s genre, for instance. Barring few exceptions such as Black Panther (2019), science fiction films hardly make the final cut, nor do adventure films. Just 11 sci-fi movies have been named for best picture since 2011, compared to 87 dramas. Biographies are another popular choice of the Oscar jury even though the genre has just 2% share among all English films ever made in the US. This analysis is based on the genre classification used by Internet Movie Database (IMDb).

Family, fantasy films, and musicals are least likely to win, the data show. This gets reflected in an analysis of the parental guidance ratings of nominated flicks: as many as 56% of the nominations in the 2010s were rated ‘restricted’ (R-rated), and another 43% needed or advised parental guidance for children below 13 years of age children (PG and PG-13). Just one nominee since 2011 was rated for a general audience (Toy Story III, 2011).

An analysis of runtime of best picture nominations shows they are about two hours long on average, and this was true this year as well. Last year had a few remarkable exceptions: The Irishman lasted over three hours, whereas Once upon a Hollywood was 2 hours and 41 minutes long. Both were directed by two veteran directors with prior Oscar nominations.

Directors with prior nominations tend to do well in the Oscars race. The 2014 study by Rossman and Schilke found that films by such directors had a better shot at an Oscar nomination. Our analysis shows that in the past decade, 35% of the nominated films were made by directors with a history of receiving “best director" nomination.

But this is one trend that is changing. Since 2015, as many as 80% of best picture nominations were by directors with no prior Oscar nominations. This year, a debutant director, Emerald Fennell, saw her film, Promising Young Woman, nominated for the best picture. Fennell herself has been nominated for the best director category. The nomination is even more significant because it came alongside a nomination for Nomadland director Chloe Zhao, making it the first occasion when more than one woman has been nominated for the best-director Oscar in the same year.

The one distinct trait of Oscar-nominated films which has endured is the timing of their release date: a far-from-subtle attempt from filmmakers to get the jury’s attention by scheduling the release late in the year. Rossman and Schilke found this trend even during 1985-2009. Since 2011, more than a quarter of the nominations have been released in the months leading up to the nomination date.

Three of this year’s best picture nominees were made by OTT platforms, same as the number of nominations from independent divisions of major studios. These divisions produce art house films, which often get critical acclaim despite modest box office earnings. At the Oscars, their record is far better than films made by independent distributors not backed by major studios.

Along with Mank, OTT releases such as The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Sound of Metal also dominated the Oscars list this year. With rules on theatrical releases relaxed, it will be interesting to see whether the likes of Netflix and Amazon continue to rise up the ranks next year, or legacy studios manage to fight back.

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