When Academics Meet Award-Winning Movies

February 2015

On February 22nd, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences holds its 87th annual Oscar® ceremony, honoring achievement in cinema and presenting a reliable entertainment spectacle that attracts upwards of 40 million stateside TV viewers and an estimated several hundred million worldwide. Since the nominations were announced on January 15th, social media and the popular press have been customarily abuzz over snubs, surprises, and predictions.

The Academy Awards® have long commanded popular fascination, but perhaps less expected is their occasional starring role as an object of scholarly attention. Then again, the awards offer fertile ground for study: a defined group of nominees and winners whose assorted characteristics can be tracked over time, and a highly visible confluence of artistic, cultural, commercial, and psychological dynamics.

In honor of the Oscars, ScienceWatch turns to Thomson Reuters Web of Science for a selection of scholarly and scientific papers that examine various facets of the awards. A topic search over the last 15 years produced roughly 200 papers, from which 10 have been selected. As in last year’s survey of literature related to the Beatles, the list comprises disparate fields of study and presents the papers according to citations, or how many times each has been consulted and explicitly footnoted by other authors.

On the subject of citations, the caveat presented in the Beatles survey bears repeating: different fields display widely different levels of average citation—higher in, say, biomedicine than in education. Therefore, in this instance of mixing fields, the rank order should be taken as more a matter of convenience than of significance. Also, some titles were selected for the sake of variety over those that qualified strictly by citation impact. (To authors of the latter, ScienceWatch apologizes in advance for any perceived “Oscar snub.”)

In the accompanying table, the field of medicine provides the two top papers—along with an instance of scholarly disagreement. In paper #1, a 2001 study in Annals of Internal Medicine, the authors examine whether the status of an Oscar win for an actor and actress confers benefits in lifestyle and health that translate into an increased life span. Their results suggest a benefit of nearly four added years of longevity. In a subsequent study five years later in the same journal, however (paper #2), a different team judged that the statistical methods used in the 2001 paper were subject to bias and that any survival benefit is likely not statistically significant.

Other papers examine the commercial aspect of the awards, with one attempting to calculate the box-office benefits of a nomination and win (#3). Another report, from a marketing perspective, examines nominated and winning movies to ascertain the emotive or psychological factors conducive to heightened audience involvement—lessons that might be turned to luring and engaging consumers (#9). And another takes a sociological view of Oscar winners, noting the importance of collaborating with accomplished colleagues (#5).

Elsewhere on the list, one of the papers takes a statistical approach to that annual Oscar fixation: predicting the winners (#6). This report is coauthored by Dean Keith Simonton of the University of California, Davis. Notably, Simonton is also sole author of two other reports in the table: one comparing the Oscars to other film awards (#4), and another examining issues of gender inequality in connection with the Best Actress award. Should the Academy’s slate ever include a Lifetime Achievement honor for Oscar scholarship, Simonton is presumably well in the running.

A final motif in the selected papers concerns disabilities as portrayed in Oscar-winning films (#8, #10). The author of both studies, Stephen P. Safran of Ohio University, surveys the depiction of disability both in civilian life and in such war films as Coming Home and The Deer Hunter. The subject of able-bodied actors portraying characters with impairments (and frequently winning awards) has been a source of contention in some quarters, raising the question of why actors with real-life disabilities aren’t offered such roles. This year, with Eddie Redmayne a Best Actor favorite for his performance in The Theory of Everything as physicist Stephen Hawking, famously stricken as a young man with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the discussion has continued (for example, in The Guardian and Slate).

This year’s ceremony, no matter whose names are called onstage to collect their golden statues, will add still more data points for scholars to chew over in the ongoing effort to fathom the Academy Awards and what they tell us about our real and imaginary worlds.

Cite & Sound: A Selection of Scholarly Papers Featuring the Academy Awards

Listed by number of citations recorded in Thomson Reuters Web of Science.

The listings include excerpts from the papers’ abstracts.

  Paper Cites
1 D.A. Redelmeier, S.M. Singh, “Survival in Academy Award-winning actors and actresses,” Annals of Internal Medicine, 134 (10): 955-62, 2001.
From the abstract: “Social status is an important predictor of poor health. Most studies of this issue have focused on the lower echelons of Society. Objective: To determine whether the increase in status from winning an Academy Award is associated with long-term mortality among actors and actresses. All actors ever nominated for an Academy Award in a leading or supporting role were identified. For each, another cast member of the same sex who was in the same film and born in the same era was identified…Life expectancy was 3.9 years long for Academy Award winners than for other, less recognized performers…The association of high status with increased longevity that prevails in the public also extends to celebrities, contributes to a large survival advantage, and is partially explained by factors related to success.”
2 M.P. Sylvestre, E. Husztl, J.A. Hanley, “Do Oscar winners live longer than less successful peers? A reanalysis of the evidence,” Annals of Internal Medicine, 145 (5): 361-3, 2006.
“[A 2001 article in Annals of Internal Medicine] reported that Academy Award-winning actors and actresses lived almost 4 years longer than their less successful peers. However, the statistical method used to derive this statistically significant difference gave winners an unfair advantage because it credited an Oscar winner’s years of life before winning toward survival subsequent to winning. When the authors of this current article reanalyzed the data using methods that avoided this “immortal time” bias, the survival advantage was closer to 1 year and was not statistically significant.”
3 R.A. Nelson, et al., “What’s an Oscar worth?” Economic Inquiry, 39 (1): 1-16, 2001.
“This article examines the impact of an Academy Award nomination and award for best picture, best actor/actress, and best supporting actor/actress on a film’s (i) market share of theaters, (ii) average revenue per screen, and (iii) its probability of survival. This model is estimated using weekly box-office data for a matched sample of nominated and non-nominated films. The results indicate substantial financial benefits for a nomination and award for best picture and best actor/actress. The structure of rewards is consistent with that found in two-stage, single-elimination tournaments.”
4 D.K. Simonton, “Film awards as indicators of cinematic creativity and achievement: A quantitative comparison of the Oscars and six alternatives,” Creativity Research Journal, 16 (2-3): 163-72, 2004. “Although film awards are often taken as indicating the creative achievements that underlie outstanding motion pictures, critics have questioned whether such honors represent a consensus regarding cinematic contributions. Nevertheless, a strong agreement was demonstrated by investigating 1,132 films released between 1975 and 2002 that had received at least 1 award or award nomination from 7 distinct sources (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Hollywood Foreign Press Association,  [etc]). The results indicated that (a) almost all award categories exhibited a conspicuous consensus, the Oscars providing the best single indicator of that agreement; (b) Oscar awards provided meaningful information about cinematic creativity and achievement beyond that provided by Oscar nominations alone.” 22
5 G. Rossman, N. Esparza, P. Bonacich, “I’d like to thank the Academy, team spillovers, and network centrality,” American Sociological Review, 75(1): 31-51, 2010.
“This article uses Academy Award nominations for acting to explore how artistic achievement is situated within a collaborative context. Assessment of individual effort is particularly difficult in film because quality is not transparent, but the project-based nature of the field allows us to observe individuals in multiple collaborative contexts. We address these issues with analyses of the top 10 credited roles from films released in theaters between 1936 and 2005.”
6 I. Pardoe, D.K. Simonton, “Applying discrete choice models to predict Academy Award winners,” Journal of the Royal Statistical Society Series A – Statistics in Society, 71: 375-94, 2008.
“Before the winners in various categories are announced, there is intense media and public interest in predicting who will come away from the awards ceremony with an Oscar statuette. There are no end of theories about which nominees are most likely to win, yet despite this there continue to be major surprises when the winners are announced. The paper frames the question of predicting the four major awards—picture, director, actor in a leading role and actress in a supporting role—as a discrete choice problem. It is then possible to predict the winners in these four categories with a reasonable degree of success.”
7 D.K. Simonton, “The ‘best actress’ paradox: Outstanding feature films versus exceptional women’s performances,” Sex Roles, 50 (11-12): 781-94, 2004.
“On the basis of prior research on acting careers, it was hypothesized that exceptional women’s performances are less likely to be associated with outstanding feature films than is the case for men. This hypothesis was tested in 2 studies. In Study 1, 2,157 films that received Oscar nominations or awards between 1936 and 2000 were examined, whereas in Study 2, I scrutinized 1,1367 films that received awards or award nominations from 7 major professional, journalistic, and critical associations from 1968 to 2000. In both studies, a significant gender discrepancy was found, a differential that persisted after the introduction of a large number of statistical controls and that showed no tendency to diminish over time.”
8 S.P. Safran, “Disability portrayal in film: Reflecting the past, directing the future,” Exceptional Children, 64 (2): 227-38, 1998.
“Cinematic stories and characters influence perceptions and opinions of many viewers. Studying film depictions, therefore, provides a unique perspective on society’s views of individuals with disabilities. The purpose of this descriptive study was to investigate trends in Academy Award-winning films that portray persons with disabilities. Over the decades, there have been an increasing number of awards involving “disability” movies; psychiatric disorders have been most frequently portrayed. Only two of the motion pictures identified presented children or youth with impairments, while none featured learning disabilities.”
9 M. Addis, M.B. Holbrook, “Consumers’ identification and beyond: Attraction, reverence, and escapism in the evaluation of films,” Psychology & Marketing, 27 (9): 821-45, 2010.
“Secondary real-world data on evaluations by the general public of the 440 movies ever nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award are used to explore the role of female/male consumers’ identification with the leading actress/actor in determining judgments of motion picture excellence. Beyond identification, age- and gender-related similarities with other movie components—namely, the leading opposite-gender star, the director, and the setting—underlie other potential psychological mechanisms relevant to explaining the evaluation of films. Contrary to expectations, the findings indicate that identification with same-gender, same-age leading star plays no significant role. Conversely, younger opposite-gender leading stars, older directors, and unfamiliar temporal settings contribute to favorable evaluations—thereby supporting the hypotheses of romantic attraction as a source of star power; reverence toward more mature directors; and an eagerness to escape from ordinary life.”
10  S.P. Safran, “Movie images of disability and war: Framing history and political ideology,” Remedial and Special Education, 22 (4): 223-32, 2001.
“For many decades, warfare and disability have been common in motion pictures. In this article, six Academy Award-winning movies on this subject are analyzed by synthesizing historical information, characteristics of specific disability conditions, and disability-related social issues. Each film’s content is examined, with emphasis on how each may potentially influence viewer understanding of disability.”
Thomson Reuters Web of Science

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