August Osage County 330

What Makes a Movie Oscar-Worthy? It Must Be Serious and Depressing.

August Osage County

The Oscar nominations are happening tomorrow morning at the crack of dawn. Ok, maybe only the crack of dawn for those on the West Coast impatiently waiting to see if they’re nominated or not.

The nominations will be announced live on Thursday, January 16 at 8:38 a.m. ET; 5:38 a.m. PT in the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater by Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs and actor Chris Hemsworth. The Oscar Awards show airs March 2, 2014, at 7e; 4p on ABC and online at

But what goes into making a movie Oscar-worthy? The American Sociological Association sent out a press release this morning revealing the logic behind those tough decisions that studios make way, way before the nominations.

Gabriel Rossman and Oliver Schilke analyzed 25 years worth of data on mainstream cinema. Their findings will appear in the February issue of the American Sociological Review, but one of the main things they found is that Oscar-worthy movies tend to be serious and depressing. That makes me sad.

“We’ve found that audiences don’t like the kinds of aesthetics that are characteristic of Oscar-worthy movies,” Rossman said. “The movies tend to be serious and depressing, and audiences don’t like that, so making Oscar-y movies is a riskier strategy than the average moviegoer might appreciate.” 

Let’s look at the movies likely to be nominated in various categories tomorrow. Most of them fall into that serious and depressing category.

  • 12 Years a Slave
  • Captain Phillips
  • Gravity
  • Philomena
  • Rush
  • Blue Jasmine
  • Dallas Buyers Club
  • All Is Lost
  • American Hustle
  • Her
  • Inside Llewyn Davis
  • Nebraska
  • The Wolf Of Wall Street
  • August: Osage County

Dysfunctional families, struggling songwriters, a lonely guy who has sex with a computer, desperate pirates, evil nuns, brutal slavery, greedy stockbrokers, HIV-positive people … all serious and/or depressing. It makes me wonder why the happier, more lighthearted movies are so often overlooked for Oscars. Why, Hollywood, why? In a recent Facebook thread, we were talking about “August: Osage County” and how no one wants to see it.  I haven’t seen it yet either.

More findings:

1. According to records on nearly 3,000 Oscar eligible films, 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.

2. Movies released toward the end of the year are more likely to be nominated.

3. Release by an independent division of a major studio was found to be a strong predictor.

4. Not surprisingly, movies that get nominated for an Oscar enjoy a considerable bounce in ticket sales. Because the movie are serious and depressing, this bounce usually happens AFTER a movie is deemed to be Oscar worthy. People don’t like serious and depressing movies, but they do like Oscar-worthy movies. Which I know makes no sense.

What about you? Where do you fall in the serious/depressing movie scale? Do you like those kinds of movies? Are you more likely to see a serious/depressing movie if it’s deemed Oscar-worthy?


9 responses to “What Makes a Movie Oscar-Worthy? It Must Be Serious and Depressing.”

  1. Melanie Votaw Avatar
    Melanie Votaw

    American Hustle is an anomaly. The Academy has never taken comedy … uh, seriously. Whoopi Goldberg and Marisa Tomei are two winning comic performances that come to mind because they’re so rare.

    1. Jane Boursaw Avatar

      I don’t really think of American Hustle as a comedy though. Do you? I know they grouped both that film and The Wolf of Wall Street” in the Comedy or Musical category for the Globes. Well, in fact, here are the films in that category:

      American Hustle – WINNER
      Inside Llewyn Davis
      The Wolf Of Wall Street

      I guess Llewyn Davis fits into the musical category, but the others? They seem like Dramas to me. Wolf and Hustle might be “borderline” comedies, but Her and Nebraska? Drama.

  2. What Makes a Movie Oscar-Worthy? It Must Be Serious and Depressing. via @reellifejane

  3. Melanie Votaw Avatar
    Melanie Votaw

    Yes, I see American Hustle as a comedy. I didn’t think much of it was legitimately dramatic, even though I’m sure the real story was dramatic. I thought the film was outrageously hilarious. It’s the only one in that category that seems to fit.

  4. What Makes a Movie Oscar-Worthy? It Must Be Serious and Depressing.: The Oscar nominations are happening tomor…

  5. Alexandra Avatar

    There are so many good movies this year! I admit it. I do like movies that make you think. I only wish they did not all get released in December!

    1. Jane Boursaw Avatar

      Yeah, that’s a real issue when all the good movies are released in December! Especially during the holidays when people are super busy anyway.

      Seems like more and more, though, I see movies getting a limited release in December to meet awards requirements, and then get a wider release in January.

  6. What Makes a Movie Oscar-Worthy? It Must Be Serious and Depressing. via @reellifejane

  7. […] just want to go see a fun movie. They don’t want to slap down $8.50 at the theater and be super depressed with all the Oscar-nominated movies. It’s mid-winter. People don’t want to have to think too hard right […]

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