Every year, it seems like there’s a controversy around the Oscars choice for Best Picture. The Academy may vote one way, but there’s often a backlash from fans arguing that another contender was more deserving of the statue. And history is often on the side of the fans — Best Picture “snubs” often go on to have a more enduring legacy than the films that brought home the hardware.
What’s at the root of these discrepancies? Do current events affect a film’s Oscar chances? Is the Academy out of touch? Do official voters prefer one type of movie and fans another?
We wanted to find out, so we analyzed the last several years worth of Best Pictures races to see if we could figure out why certain movies win the Best Picture race but not the hearts of fans — and vice versa.
Let’s start with the 2016 best picture race.
The Newspaper vs. The Wild
That year, Spotlight, the drama about The Boston Globe team’s investigation of a Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal, beat The Revenant, the sensationalistic Leonardo DiCaprio-starring, bear-centered film with advanced visual effects. Spotlight was a film rooted in realism, more praised for its message than its technical achievement. With 5.5 million posts, the Revenant earned more post-nomination social buzz than Spotlight’s 2.2 million. The Revenant also earned 71 percent of its box office revenue after its nomination, compared to Spotlight’s 36 percent.
The 2016 race was similar to the race in 2014, where the realistic 12 Years a Slave competed against futuristic Gravity for the Oscar, and won. But 2014 was different from 2016 in that 12 Years a Slave received more post-nomination box office revenue and social buzz than Gravity.
The outcome of the race between the top two films was very different in 2012. In 2012, The Artist, a film about the entertainment industry, beat out Hugo, a historical drama centered around an orphan. Hugo had more post-nomination revenue, but The Artist had more post-nomination buzz.
What does this mean in terms of what social data can tell us about audience preferences? These differences in The Academy’s pick for winner and audience preferences demonstrate that the audience does not follow The Academy when it comes to the winners in their eyes. Winning an Oscar does not automatically elevate audience interest in a film. Audience choices cannot be simplified into whether they prefer adventure films over historical films, as the circumstances change each year. Social data is the key that unlocks insights about how audiences react to films.
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What do Oscars trends of the past tell us about this year’s race?
Oscars nominees are more than a random assortment of critically acclaimed films. Often they reflect economic and political realities. For 2017, a year off to a turbulent political start, all the nominees are blatantly political, except for La La Land, Lion, and Manchester by the Sea. Fresh off the social media-fueled Oscars So White backlash of 2016, people of color are well-represented in this year’s nominated films. This, however, does not mean that it’s now Oscars So Woke — female filmmakers are still underrepresented.
But when we look at the social conversation after the films were nominated, an interesting picture emerges.
Time Period: Jan. 1, 2017 to February 12, 2017
Despite La La Land being the favorite to win all of the awards, Hidden Figures has been the most-discussed movie since the best picture nominations were announced. Regardless of what The Academy prefers or what audiences discuss (and if there’s an overlap), one thing’s clear: nominations help launch films into the social spotlight, and from there, it is up to the audience, not The Academy, to shape the discussion and buy the tickets.
“Not all of us, however, are in the mood for trifles,” wrote film critic Noah Gittell in The Guardian. Gittell said that La La Land’s lack of diversity is “going to continue to be an issue until Hollywood more generally solves its problem of inequality in gender, race and sexual identity.” This sentiment is reflected in what movies people choose to see in theaters. On the day of the nominations, La La Land grossed $90 million total, compared to Hidden Figures’ $84 million. Afterboth movies were nominated for best picture on Jan. 24, Hidden Figures accumulated more box office revenue than La La Land. In the three weeks since the best picture nomination, both movies obtained over a quarter of their total gross.
* Hidden Figures released Dec. 25, 2016 and La La Land released Dec. 9 , 2016
The post nomination story shows a shift in audience preferences, and those politically-influenced preferences do not necessarily align with the industry picks for winner. Based on the composition of the five types of Oscar voters (artistic masterpiece, technical masterpiece, classicist, actors and social issues), La La Land may win the Oscar, but based on the other factors, Hidden Figures is winning audiences, indicated by social conversation and box office performance.
Whatever the movies are, social conversation helps us contextualize the nominees, helping us transcend acknowledging who won and answering the questions “why” and “what’s next.” Movies change each year, but conversation is timeless.
For additional insights about audience analysis in awards conversations, read through our Emmy’s analysis.