Ok, what’s your second favorite movie?

March 6, 2010 at 3:46 pm 4 comments

| Gabriel |

A few journalists have asked me about the recent changes to the “best picture” category at the Oscars. I’m reproducing my answer here. Also see my previous post on the increasing performativity of Oscar bait. Finally, the official version of the article on centrality and spillovers is finally out.

The Academy’s recent changes to the “best picture” category were a reaction to the increasing dominance of the category by obscure films. This has increasingly been an issue since the surprise win of “Shakespeare in Love” at the 1999 Oscars. This film was much less popular that “Saving Private Ryan” but took the Oscar in part because of an aggressive lobbying campaign from Miramax. Ever since, the Oscars have been increasingly dominated by obscure art films rather than big tentpole films for the simple reason that the small films benefit much more from Oscar attention than do the big films. Simply put, “Avatar” won’t sell any more tickets or DVDs if it wins or doesn’t win an Oscar, whereas Oscars could make a huge difference to the box office and DVD for films like “Precious” or “The Hurt Locker.” We saw this again last year in that “Slumdog Millionaire” made most of its money after the Oscars.

This dynamic has created a niche for “Oscar bait” films, which are released in November or December and often feature unpleasant (or if you prefer, challenging) material. The best example of this in the current slate is “Precious,” which is not exactly a “fun” movie. The downside for the Academy is that because audiences aren’t very interested in these movies, it depresses attention for the Oscars. Probably the breaking incident was that last year none of the nominated films had made over $40 million domestic in calendar year 2008, but “Dark Knight” (which made over $530 million domestic in calendar year 2008) was not nominated. This despite the fact that “Dark Knight” was not just a popcorn movie but artistically defensible, having been well-received by critics who saw in it a lot of interesting themes about morality and moral culpability. In large part because “Dark Knight” was not nominated, the Oscars had poor ratings, lower than many episodes of the game show “American Idol.” The hope was that by expanding the nominee list and changing the voting system, the Academy could ensure that at least a few hits would be nominated and would be likely to win, thereby halting the evolution of the Oscars into a ghetto for obscure art films.

Of course the downside to expanding the nomination list is that it makes it plausible that a few broadly popular films could split the vote and a film with a cohesive minority of supporters could attain a plurality, despite broad distaste. Similar issues are seen every once in awhile in politics when two mainstream political parties split the vote and seats go to an extremist party. To avoid such a possibility, the Academy has adopted an “instant runoff” voting system wherein voters do not just choose their favorite, but rank all of their choices. The tally then considers second and third choices until a film achieves a majority. The effect of the voting system should work as intended, which is to say it should ensure a consensus pick that most voters are reasonably happy with rather than a divisive pick with a few fervent fans but which is otherwise despised. The instant runoff system is less likely to produce a dark horse win than the old simple plurality system, but it’s worth noting that according to the “Arrow impossibility theorem” no voting system can reflect voter preferences with perfect accuracy.

In theory, one potential problem with instant runoff is strategic voting. With strategic voting, somebody might write a false second choice if they are afraid that their true second choice is likely to beat out their actual favorite. So if my favorite movie is “Hurt Locker” and my second favorite is “Avatar,” I might falsely claim that my second favorite is “District 9” because I see it as a longshot and I’m thereby assuring that I won’t contribute to “Avatar” beating “Hurt Locker.” In reality, I think this is unlikely to happen to any great extent because strategic voting requires a lot of coordination and the Academy is very strict about policing negative campaigning. In fact, they just censured a producer of “Hurt Locker” for implying that voters should vote against “Avatar.”

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4 Comments

  • 1. Jay Livingston  |  March 7, 2010 at 4:09 pm

    In the final two paragraphs, you write of the Academy as a collection of individual voters or perhaps blocs with different views and interests. But in the second paragraph, the Academy seems to be a monolith awarding Oscars for strategic purposes (to ignore a movie that doesn’t need more sales and help one that does).

    I know nothing about the Academy, but I assume Slumdog and Shakespeare won because more of the members voted for them. Do we know why the members vote for one film, actor, writer, sound designer, etc. rather than another?

    • 2. gabrielrossman  |  March 8, 2010 at 1:00 am

      i should clarify. i mean different things by “the academy.” i believe, but haven’t checked, that the procedural issues are set by the board of governors (ie, the board of trustees). on the other hand, nominations and voting are made by the membership, either altogether or by “branches” (ie, profession).

      my argument is that when the board of governors sets the rules it does so to increase the public attention and respect for the awards. i think it is fair to talk about the governors as having corporate agency.

      in contrast, i am making no such claims for corporate agency for the membership when they votes or nominates. nor do i think that they’re altruistically thinking “who could use it most.” rather, i think the filmmakers are effectively engaging in a tullock lottery and their bids (in terms of “oscar bait” aesthetics, late release dates, and “for your consideration” marketing) are effectively bids in the lottery commensurate with the rents they expect to extract.

  • 3. Noah  |  March 8, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but weren’t a lot of people wondering if we might see some kind of block voting this year based on profession within the academy? People predicted that Avatar would get a lot of support from the technical workers but not as much from writers or actors. Could this be like oscar bait for the effects voters? Just wondering what you think about this.

    • 4. gabrielrossman  |  March 8, 2010 at 5:18 pm

      it’s entirely possible. if you’re thinking about pandering to the branches one thing to keep in mind is that the acting branch has a strong plurality. i haven’t checked this out myself, but one of the theories is that ensemble films (like “Crash”) tend to hit above their weight for best picture.

      these kind of things are hard to test systematically because we only have data on the aggregate outcomes (who gets nominated, who wins) rather than the micro data (who votes for whom). it does have interesting implications though for distinctions between nominating and voting since (except best picture), nomination is intra-branch whereas voting is academy-wide. so, for instance, you might imagine that there are director’s directors (scorcese), technician’s directors (cameron), and actor’s directors (eastwood). the latter two types might find that it’s hard for them to beat out the former type for getting nominated, but once they do the actual win is relatively easy.


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