Oscars 2019: what makes a winner?

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Professor Ganna Pogrebna, Professor of Behavioural Economics and Data Science
The Department of Economics, University of Birmingham

The 2019 Academy Award winners have now been named, and much of this year’s Oscar wins were as predicted. As expected, Rami Malek won best actor award for Bohemian Rhapsody, a win for the all-around box ticker Green Book, and Olivia Colman won best actress award for her portrayal as Queen Anne in The Favourite, in which she is a real master class in demonstrating fragility and power through emotional instability.

As expected, tragedies did well at this year’s Oscars, with movies ending at a sad emotional tone or bringing us back to reality doing well. Research conducted at the University of Birmingham and the Alan Turing Institute analysed thousands of films and showed that tragedies (films starting on a happy note and turning sad) on average do better at the Oscars than other genres. Specifically, tragedies score 2.14 Oscars in our sample, which looks at over 6,000 motion pictures from the early 20th century until now.

One victory is particularly noteworthy though – Alfonso Cuarón became a real hero of the evening as he picked up three prizes: best director, best cinematography, and best foreign language film for Roma. Roma is definitely the film of the year, not only because it is an excellent exhibit of the contemporary arthouse cinematography, but also because it tells us about timeless concepts such as family, memory, and maturity. It is the film of the year, because it was produced by the most unlikely company. Roma is a product of Netflix, known for its data-science take on modern entertainment. Yes, Netflix, a famous production company behind the most successful TV series, invested in this arthouse project and, they made the right choice.

Data-science driven entertainment companies are often accused of producing movies for the mass-market, which are barely distinguishable from each other. Yet, the example of Roma showed us that a smart approach to data science can lead to a completely different outcome. Roma is a perfect example of how data-science oriented companies can support and nurture new ideas and be inventive with their money.

One of the geniuses of contemporary cinematography, Ingmar Bergman, once said: “I make all my decisions on intuition. But then, I must know why I made that decision. I throw a spear into the darkness. That is intuition. Then I must send an army into the darkness to find the spear. That is intellect”. The victory of Roma shows how decisions based on intellect can encourage artistic intuition and take it to a new level. It is an exciting time for modern cinema, which is learning how to understand the needs of viewers and how to use data to make sure that creativity and financial success of movies go hand-in-hand.

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