Movie Success: Is it in the Data?

By Dijana, Maddie, and Sruthi 

Despite all of the talk every year about how out of touch the entire award ceremony and results are, everyone in the film industry wants to win an Oscar. It’s the most prestigious award in the industry, signifying the recipient being at the top of the field. Regardless of the flaws of the voting process, which is completely subjectives given the voting constituency, the number of Oscars a film wins is more often than not the main measure of a film’s success.

But is there some other factor that contributes to that success? Do the film critics sway the voters? Does public sentiment push movies into Oscar contention? Is there some correlation between the revenue of a movie and it’s Oscar potential? Does spending more on the film lead to more wins?

Using data sets that included quantitative data from IMDB, the American Film Institute, and Box Office Mojo, it’s clear that some factors have a stronger relationship with Oscar wins than others.

(Budget) Size Doesn’t Matter

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After charting the relationship between Oscar wins and the adjusted budget of each film released from 1928 to 2010 (with some omissions due to the incomplete data set), it’s clear that the cost of the movie has no bearing on its overall success. Very rarely are the big budget movies major winners at the Academy Awards. In fact, only Titantic, a film that cost approximately $200M to make, has a significantly large budget in film terms.  

There may be many inferences to make from the data, such as the fact that the most expensive movies tend to be summer releases geared for the general population as opposed to the serious film crowd. Budgets may be increasing for films over the last several decades (see graph below), but the number of films winning a significant amount of awards has not increased. However, given the lack of available data, these points remain speculation.     

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Mo’ Money, Mo’ Oscars?

The size of a budget may not signal a greater probability for a film to win more Oscars, but about overall revenue? Does the box office success matter for the Academy voters?

Looking at the data from Box Office Mojo of the 25 movies released before 2011 with the highest domestic grosses, adjusted for inflation, it’s clear that there is no significant relationship between revenue and Oscar wins.

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Academy members aren’t swayed from box office smashes when it comes to choosing Best Picture. Though there are a few outliers, such as Gone with the Wind and Titanic, that have earned a significant amount of revenue at the box office as well as Academy Awards, for the most part more revenue does not signify more Oscars. In fact, 6 of the 25 movies did not win a single Oscar, and three only won one Academy Award.

The People vs. Oscar Wins

In the film industry, an Oscar is an incredible achievement, signifying the quality of the end product and the work that went into creating it. But does the public see these films in the same way? Just how popular are the most successful movies?

Using data from the IMDB database, the rating of each film (which any IMDb.com visitor can vote on) was compared to the total Oscar wins:

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Surprisingly, the most popular film on IMDb according to the public rating at 9.2 out of 10 is The Shawshank Redemption, a film that while nominated for seven Academy Awards, came away empty handed. On the other hand, two of the three films with the most Oscar wins (11), Titanic and Ben-Hur failed to make the top 250 ratings on the website, with ratings of 7.7 and 5.7, respectively. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King is one of the few films that bucks this trend, with a rating of 8.9 and 11 Oscar wins.

But What Do the Experts Think?

When it comes to measuring the success of a film, one major group has been ignored thus far: film experts, including historians and critics. To get a better sense of how much expert opinion matches up with the Academy’s, the American Film Institute’s list of top 25 movies of all time (up to 2010) was used as the primary source for analysis:

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Much like the previous analyses, the number of wins does not match up well with the ranking. While several movies, such as Gone with the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, and On the Waterfront, each won several awards and were ranked in the top 10, the top film of all time, Citizen Kane, only won one Oscar. Even more surprising, several of the top 25 films, including Singin’ in the Rain, Psycho, and It’s a Wonderful Life received zero Academy Awards.

Of course, several caveats must be made with the data. The number of total categories and therefore possible wins has increased substantially from the first Academy Awards in 1928. Similarly, there is no way to determine the competitiveness of the field in a given year. There’s no way of knowing if a film that is highly regarded by critics and the public would have won more awards if it was released in another year.Additionally, not all Oscars are created equally, and more weight may need to be applied to categories like Best Picture and Best Director over others.

Despite the issues with the data, one thing remains clear: Oscar wins may be a measure of success for the industry, but it very little, if any, evidence that several criteria matter when it comes to predicting success. So instead of trying to use an IMDB rating to predict the next Oscar winner, it may be better to just guess blindly.

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