A forthcoming study in a premier sociology journal looks at the formula for Oscar nominees and how it affects the money they make:
So is it a good idea for movie makers to pursue Oscar nominations? Rossman and Schilke’s research suggests that it probably is not. Rossman and Schilke use data from the Internet Movie Database to identify the themes of a very large set of movies. They then look to see how well each movie’s themes match the themes of Oscar nominees in the five years before the movie was released, to figure out how well the movie matches the “Oscar formula,” while also accounting for other factors (e.g. the studio that released the movie) which could affect the movie’s Oscar chances. This allows them to figure out the ‘Oscar appeal’ of each movie in their dataset. On Rossman and Schilke’s measure, movies like The Hottie and the Nottie have very low Oscar appeal, while movies like Out of Africa have high appeal.
The problem is that there are lots of movies with Oscar appeal, but far fewer movies that get nominated. Because the Oscar nominee list imposes a sharp cutoff (movies either get nominated or they don’t), movies that just failed to make the Oscar nomination cut are likely to do far worse than movies that just about got on the list, even if the two are of more or less equal quality. The financial losses of the failures counterbalance the success of the nominees.
As Rossman and Schilke conclude:
..net of achieving Oscar nominations, Oscar appeal has a negative effect on financial returns. In essence, there are two types of high Oscar appeal movies—those that do not receive nominations (and tend to lose money) and those that do receive nominations (and tend to make money)—but taken together these two types of movies are no more nor less profitable than movies with low Oscar appeal.
This seems to fit other evidence that it is very difficult to predict which mass culture products will be successful – whether movies, music, or books – and the more successful ones can make enough to offset the losses from producing all the rest.