This Is How to Win an Oscar

Who wins the award may depend more on who's giving it and whether the judges and the eligible performers have things in common.

What does it take for an actor or actress to win an Oscar? The best acting school? The right agent? The perfect script? A revered director? A new study conducted by the School of Psychology at The University of Queensland in Australia demystifies the magical formula: It takes being an American actor in a film that portrays American culture.

The results have implications beyond Hollywood. That's because Niklas Steffens, lead researcher and a postdoctoral research fellow and lecturer at The University of Queensland, and his team found that who wins an award, whether film or some other creative endeavor, my depend more on who's giving it and whether the two groups have things in common.

Since 1929, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Academy Awards have recognized excellence in cinematic achievements in the United States. (Fun fact: rumors suggest that the mystery model behind the Oscar statuette is Mexican actor and director Emilio Fernandez, who was living in Hollywood at the time.)

To be eligible for any of the award categories, including Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor or Best Supporting Actress for an American-made film or foreign language performance in a film produced outside the U.S., the film must have been commercially released in Hollywood and have included English subtitles.

On the surface, the rules seem to provide and even playing field. But when Steffens looked at the data, he found something else.

Steffens and his colleagues analyzed 480 Oscar nominees from the Los-Angeles based Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and 428 nominees for best actor and/or best actress in a leading role by the London-based British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTAs) dating back to 1968, when BAFTA first began awarding prizes. The data included 908 nominees in total, including all winners.

The researchers then analyzed how many awards and nominations were won by in-group artists (U.S. artists in the case of Oscars and British in the case of BAFTAs) and out-group artists (non-U.S. artists in the case of Oscars and non-British in the case of BAFTAs). They also examined the influence of the value of a prize - in other words, whether people ended with a nomination or an award - as well as the national culture that a given movie portrayed.

The results showed that U.S. actors dominated the awards, even in England, winning more than half of all prizes across the Oscars and BAFTAs.

In addition, actors were more likely to win when they shared social group membership with the judges. For example, American actors won 52 percent of all BAFTAs but 69 percent of all Oscars. British actors, on the other hand, took home 18 percent of all Oscars but 34 percent of all BAFTAs.

Steffens explained that he was particularly surprised that "U.S. actors win about one out of two of all BAFTA nominations and awards but two out of three of all Oscar nominations and awards."

"It is interesting that sharing membership in a social group has a particularly strong impact when we establish whether a performance is not just excellent, but outstanding," he said.

These findings have broader implications beyond our recognition of performance in the acting profession, according to Steffens. He believes it also has implications for the recognition of creativity and extraordinary performance - not just for Hollywood but across all types of professions.

"What this research demonstrates is that there is an important social, collective dimension to judgements of originality and extraordinary performance," he said.

"In particular, our evaluations of what is creative is not simply a function of its objective features but is to a large part determined by the social groups that we are members of and that provide a lens through which we perceive and make sense of the world."

With this in mind, Steffens has some predictions about what take top honors at the upcoming Oscars on February 26, 2017.

"Once we understand that the recognition of creativity is enhanced when perceivers and artists share group memberships, then it is clearly not a coincidence that a movie that deals with the struggles of the life of performers in Hollywood - 'La La Land' - is tipped to win a lot of major awards in the U.S.," he said.

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