In 1990, Twentieth Century Fox released the most blatant piece of "Oscar-bait" ever made. It wasn't nominated for any Oscars. You've probably never seen it.
It's no secret that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which yesterday announced its nominees for the 2014 Academy Awards, has certain prejudices.
Dramas tend to be favoured over comedies. Historical epics and biopics over sci-fi and action. Studio pictures with big stars generally get preference over quirky indies. We all have a pretty good idea of what constitutes Oscar bait, but a forthcoming paper in the American Sociological Review by UCLA professors Gabriel Rossman and Oliver Schilke attempts to define it mathematically.
Reviewing nearly 3,000 Oscar-eligible films released between 1985 and 2009, Rossman and Schilke developed an algorithm to assess what makes a film most likely to be nominated for an Oscar. The factors include when a film is released; whether it's being distributed by a major studio; whether the actors, writers, and directors of the film have previous Oscar nominations; and whether, according to movie site IMDb, it features genres and plot keywords most associated with Oscar nominations.
Oscars 2014: Best Actor and Actress nominees
Oscars 2014: Best Actor and Actress nominees
1/20 Cate Blanchett (Best Actress)
Blanchett has been nominated for Best Actress for her role as a deeply troubled New York socialite in Blue Jasmine.
2/20 Sandra Bullock (Best Actress)
Bullock is nominated for her performance as a medical engineer in Alfonso Cuaron's space adventure Gravity.
3/20 Meryl Streep (Best Actress)
Here pictured left with Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis, Streep has earned a nod for her performance as Violet Weston in August: Osage County.
4/20 Judi Dench (Best Actress)
British actress Dench is up for Best Actress for her role as Philomena Lee in Stephen Frears' Philomena.
5/20 Amy Adams (Best Actress)
Adams is nominated for Best Actress for her role as Sydney Prosser in American Hustle - here pictured left with Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence.
Francois Duhamel/ Annapurna Productions
6/20 Leonardo DiCaprio (Best Actor)
DiCaprio has picked up his fourth Oscar nomination - but will he finally win? - for his performance as debauched stockbroker Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street.
7/20 Chiwetel Ejiofor (Best Actor)
British actor Ejiofor has been nominated for an Oscar for his role as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave.
8/20 Matthew McConaughey (Best Actor)
McConaughey is up for Best Actor Oscar for his role as an emaciated AIDS patient who smuggles anti-viral drugs into the US in Dallas Buyers Club.
9/20 Christian Bale (Best Actor)
British actor Bale has earned a nod for his performance as con artist Irving Rosenfeld in American Hustle.
10/20 Bruce Dern (Best Actor)
Dern, left, is nominated for his role in Nebraska as elderly father Woody Grant who embarks on a trip with his estranged son.
11/20 Bradley Cooper (Best Supporting Actor)
Cooper, left, has earned an Oscar nod for his supporting role as a wild FBI agent in David O Russell's American Hustle.
12/20 Barkhad Abdi (Best Supporting Actor)
Abdi is up for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as a Somali pirate who hijacks Tom Hanks' ship in Captain Phillips.
13/20 Michael Fassbender (Best Supporting Actor)
Michael Fassbender, left, is nominated for his role as plantation owner Edwin Epps in Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave.
14/20 Jared Leto (Best Supporting Actor)
Leto has picked up a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role as a transgender AIDS patient in Dallas Buyers Club.
15/20 Jonah Hill (Best Supporting Actor)
Hill has earned a nod for his supporting role as a charismatic salesman in The Wolf of Wall Street - pictured here, left, in a scene with Best Actor nominee DiCaprio.
16/20 Julia Roberts (Best Supporting Actress)
Julia Roberts, here seen embracing Best Actress nominee Meryl Streep, is nominated for her role in August: Osage County.
17/20 Jennifer Lawrence (Best Supporting Actress)
Lawrence has been nominated for her role as Rosalyn Rosenfeld in American Hustle - she won Best Actress for Silver Linings Playbook last year.
18/20 Lupita Nyong'o (Best Supporting Actress)
Kenyan actress Nyong'o has earned a nod for her role as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave, here pictured with Best Supporting Actor nominee Michael Fassbender.
19/20 Sally Hawkins (Best Supporting Actress)
Sally Hawkins, left, and Andrew Dice Clay in a scene from the Woody Allen film, Blue Jasmine. British actor Hawkins is nominated for her role as Jasmine's sister Ginger.
20/20 June Squibb (Best Supporting Actress)
Squibb is nominated for her role as Kate Grant, wife of Best Actor nominee Bruce Dern's character in Alexander Payne's Nebraska.
After running the numbers, the movie that has –mathematically, at least–the most Oscar appeal of any film ever made is 1990's barely remembered Come See the Paradise, starring Dennis Quaid as a Los Angeles movie-theatre projectionist who is drafted into the army during the Second World War, while, back home, his Japanese-American wife and daughter are placed in an internment camp.
The movie certainly looks like Oscar bait on paper. It was distributed by a major studio; received a special December release in select cities to make it Oscar eligible; was directed by Alan Parker, who had already made Midnight Express and Mississippi Burning (the 22nd most Oscar-baity movie ever made); dealt with themes of war and racism and a tragic historical event; and, to top it off, was set in Hollywood. (Movies about movies do very well at the Oscars.) But it was apparently just not a very good movie.
The eclectic list of the 10 most Oscar-baity movies ever made, according to Rossman and Schilke's equation, includes highly acclaimed Best Picture winners, beloved auteurist fare, and at least a couple of duds:
1. Come See the Paradise (1990)
2. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
3. The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)
4. Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
5. Wild at Heart (1990)
6. Jackie Brown (1997)
7. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)
8. Schindler's List (1993)
9. The Aviator (2004)
10. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)
The IMDb keywords with the highest level of correlation with nominations are "family tragedy", "whistleblower", "Pulitzer Prize source", "physical therapy", "domestic servant", and "Watergate". Among the 800 or so keywords with a zero score – no movies with these have ever been nominated for an Oscar – are "zombie", "food fight", "breast implant", "bestiality", and, depressingly, "black independent film".
But this measure is beholden to IMDb's keyword-tagging system. The flukiest keywords in the top 50 may be "panties hit the floor", which apparently includes such Best Picture-nominated films as Born on the Fourth of July and Juno.
However, making Oscar bait is, the paper says, risky. When there's no nomination, the "Oscar appeal" metric is negatively correlated with profits. If you release a depressing historical biopic, you'd better hope it gets nominated.
Looking at this year's best-picture nominees, it's no wonder that 12 Years a Slave is there. It was, said Rossman in an email, "released by an independent division of a major (Fox Searchlight), had a November release, genres that include 'biography'and 'drama', and keywords like 'slavery' that load pretty strongly".
American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street, Captain Phillips, and Dallas Buyers Club would all get high scores. Gravity and Her are more unexpected. And while nothing can top Lee Daniels' The Butler for sheer Oscar baitiness (historical biopic, race relations, starring a past Oscar winner, with "family tragedy", a "domestic servant" and "Watergate") it has missed out on nomination for the top slot. Go figure.
A version of this article appeared on Slate.comReuse content