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'I'd Like to Thank the Academics...'

02/19/2015 02:39 pm ET | Updated Apr 21, 2015

In a world where it's publish or perish, Oscar is always ready for his close-up.

On Sunday night, the film industry will once again take center stage with the annual Academy Awards. A worldwide audience estimated at several hundred million will revel in the fashion, the speeches, the unexpected wins and losses -- while attempting, as always, to endure the marathon length of the broadcast.

For decades, the glamour and spectacle of the Oscar® ceremony have made it a fixture in the public imagination. Engaging in speculation and criticism regarding the nominations and the ultimate winners has become a popular rite.

To some observers, however, the significance of the Oscars runs deeper. The awards -- and what they tell us about art, commerce, psychology, and society itself -- constitute a topic for scholarly investigation.

For a sampling of academic study related to the Academy Awards, we turn to Thomson Reuters Web of Science, an online scholarly search and discovery platform and that indexes the contents of more than 12,000 top tier international and regional scientific and scholarly journals, along with conference proceedings, book chapters, and other materials in every area of the sciences, social sciences, and arts and humanities. A topic search over the last 15 years turned up roughly 200 academic papers that examine some aspect of the awards--whether the films, the stars, or the broader cultural implications. Ten representative papers were selected and appear on the Thomson Reuters web resource, ScienceWatch.

The papers also appear in the table below, listed according to citations--that is, the measure of scholarly influence that tracks how often each has been consulted and explicitly footnoted by other scholars.

The list represents a mix of disciplines and approaches, including medicine, economics, marketing, and sociology. Two papers examine the matter of disability and its depiction in Oscar-winning films -- a topic germane to this year's awards, with Eddie Redmayne considered a favorite in the lead-actor category for his portrayal of wheelchair-bound physicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.

And the two papers atop the list -- both from the journal Annals of Internal Medicine -- reflect a scholarly disagreement. In examining whether the rise in status associated with an Oscar might actually confer benefits in lifespan for winning actors; the authors of a 2001 study indeed determined evidence of a boost in longevity. Five years later, however, another team reanalyzed the data and concluded that the additional years suggested in the 2001 papers were due to a statistical bias. Despite the disagreement, the 2001 authors could not be faulted for their rigor in identifying actors for their three comparative categories of "won," "nominated," and "never nominated, never won." The latter designation gave rise to what will remain, for this observer, an all-time favorite phrase from any scholarly paper: "Lorne Greene was a control."

To see an expanded listing of the papers and their abstracts, please go to ScienceWatch.com.

Cite & Sound:
A Selection of Scholarly Papers
Featuring the Academy Awards
Listed by number of citations recorded in Thomson Reuters Web of Science.
The listings include excerpts from the papers' abstracts

1) D.A. Redelmeier, S.M. Singh, "Survival in Academy Award-winning actors and actresses," Annals of Internal Medicine, 134 (10): 955-62, 2001. Times Cited: 60

  • The paper investigates whether the status of winning an Academy Award for acting might confer lifestyle and health benefits that result in increased longevity.
  • After studying the lifespans of winners compared against controls, the authors determined an average benefit of 3.9 years in life expectancy.

2) M.P. Sylvestre, E. Husztl, J.A. Hanley, "Do Oscar winners live longer than less successful peers? A reanalysis of the evidence," Annals of Internal Medicine, 145 (5): 361-3, 2006. Times Cited: 48

  • The authors re-examine data from the 2001 paper above.
  • Their analysis concludes that the statistical method in the previous study gave winners an artificial survival advantage, as it credited the winner's life-years before winning toward survival after winning.

3) R.A. Nelson, et al., "What's an Oscar worth?" Economic Inquiry, 39 (1): 1-16, 2001. Times Cited: 47

  • To gauge the financial effects of an Academy Award nomination or win, the authors study box-office receipts for the competing films both before and after their nomination.
  • Results indicate that a nomination or win for best director, actor, and actress substantially elevates revenues, while that distinction in the other award categories seems to provide no discernible boost.

4) D.K. Simonton, "Film awards as indicators of cinematic creativity and achievement: A quantitative comparison of the Oscars and six alternatives," Creativity Research Journal, 16 (2-3): 163-72, 2004. Times Cited: 22

  • Examines 1,132 films released between 1975 and 2002 that received at least one Academy Award nomination or win compared to a similar distinction from six other awarding bodies, including the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the National Board of Review.
  • The author determines that Academy Award nominations and wins provide the most reliable consensus on artistic and professional achievement.

5) G. Rossman, N. Esparza, P. Bonacich, "I'd like to thank the Academy, team spillovers, and network centrality," American Sociological Review, 75(1): 31-51, 2010. Times Cited: 16

  • From a sociological standpoint, the authors examine films nominated for acting, in order to gauge the importance of collaboration and collaborative networks.
  • The presence of elite collaborators (e.g., writer and director) is a determinant for performances that are most likely to attract nominations, as there is a "spillover" effect of talent that benefits the entire team.

6) I. Pardoe, D.K. Simonton, "Applying discrete choice models to predict Academy Award winners," Journal of the Royal Statistical Society Series A - Statistics in Society, 71: 375-94, 2008. Times Cited: 13

  • The authors attempt to specify the variables that predict which nominees are likely to come away with an award.
  • Previous nominations seem to help directors and actors, while previous wins actually hurt actors; meanwhile, appearing in a heavily nominated film also favors a win in those categories.

7) D.K. Simonton, "The 'best actress' paradox: Outstanding feature films versus exceptional women's performances," Sex Roles, 50 (11-12): 781-94, 2004. Times Cited: 9

  • The author examines the hypothesis that award-winning performances by women typically occur in films that are lesser in stature and success (e.g., far less frequently nominated for Best Picture) compared to films with popular male actors.
  • Results support the existence of a "gender discrepancy" in which older actresses face a scarcity of substantial roles in the kinds of major films typically recognized by an Academy Award.

8) S.P. Safran, "Disability portrayal in film: Reflecting the past, directing the future," Exceptional Children, 64 (2): 227-38, 1998. Times Cited: 8

  • The author studies trends over the decades in Academy Award-winning films that have portrayed disability, noting that such films have increasingly attracted awards in recent years.
  • Psychiatric disorders have been most frequently represented, while none of the films portrayed a learning disability, and only two films featured children or youth with impairments.

9) M. Addis, M.B. Holbrook, "Consumers' identification and beyond: Attraction, reverence, and escapism in the evaluation of films," Psychology & Marketing, 27 (9): 821-45, 2010. Times Cited: 2

  • The paper examines nominated films in terms of key concepts for consumer marketing--notably, age and gender--and how they affect audience reaction and commercial prospects.
  • The most favorable audience response usually hinges on a younger, opposite-gender star (i.e., the viewer experiencing a romantic or physical attraction), along with an older director and a story set in an unfamiliar time period.

10) S.P. Safran, "Movie images of disability and war: Framing history and political ideology," Remedial and Special Education, 22 (4): 223-32, 2001. Times Cited: 2

  • The author surveys depictions of war-related disability in six films nominated for Best Picture, including All Quiet on the Western Front, The Best Years of Our Lives, Coming Home, and The Deer Hunter.
  • Despite varying accuracy in depicting the complex realities of war and disability, such films have provided useful insights into how society views disability and how these views can be modified with education.

Source: Thomson Reuters Web of Science