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Loss Leaders

by Ross Douthat

A review of Inside Llewyn Davis and All Is Lost.

To movie obsessives, the Oscars are fascinating, frustrating, riveting, infuriating — a spectacle we love to hate and love to love. To normal people, though, they’re something much more basic: a handy guide to which non-blockbuster, non-superhero movies they should grace with their time and hard-earned dollars.

This means that to make an Oscar-ish motion picture is to enter a world of “bimodal” box-office possibilities, as a new paper from UCLA’s Gabriel Rossman and Oliver Schilke puts it. The scholars looked at a quarter century’s worth of movies with “Oscar appeal,” as determined by a complex algorithm designed to weigh plot points, stars, and pedigree, and found that award-bait movies are an all-or-nothing commercial proposition — with “super-normal returns” for those that actually get a nomination and “large losses for snubs.” (The most Oscar-bait-ish movie ever, the algorithm reported, was a snub: 1990’s Come See the Paradise, starring Dennis Quaid as a movie projectionist drafted to fight in the Pacific while his Japanese-American wife and daughter end up in internment camps back home.)

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