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Oscar Nominees Should Thank Their Collaborators

The maxim 'It's all who you know' doesn't quite hold true for Academy Award nominations. At least for actors, a more accurate statement is 'It's all who you work with.'
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With a new set of nominations just out, and the usual grumblings about unfair snubs just beginning (how could they possibly pass up “Happy-Go-Lucky’s” Sally Hawkins?!), it’s instructive to read a paper entitled “I’d Like to Thank the Academy, Complementary Productivity and Social Networks.” In the study, published online in December 2006, sociologists Nicole Esparza (then at Princeton, now at Harvard) and Gabriel Rossman of the University of California, Los Angeles, analyzed all 1,349 Oscar nominations for actor, actress, supporting actor and supporting actress from 1927 to 2005.

Their analysis concluded that working with “high-quality peers” greatly increases the chances of an actor getting nominated.  After controlling for various other factors, “Prior Academy nominations of a film’s cast, writer and director all significantly affect an actor’s likelihood of being nominated.”

“It is interesting that the skill of the writer(s) and the director has an even greater influence on one’s prospects than does the skill of one’s co-stars,” they write. “Good writers and directors provide more of a spillover effect than do good co-stars.”

The sociologists are on somewhat thin ground in automatically equating Academy Award nominations with high-quality work. Film critics, whose top-10 lists often vary greatly from the Oscar nominations, equate them with a certain type of artistry that appeals to the Academy’s membership, which tends to be older and aesthetically conservative.

Nevertheless, this data provides a timely reminder that, for all the adulation film actors receive, cinema is very much a collaborative art form. Great performances are not created in a vacuum; even the best actors need a solid script and sensitive director.

“Most likely there is a preferential attachment of high-skilled workers to one another, and thus spillover effects form a powerful mechanism for cumulative advantage,” the researchers conclude. “In other words, there is a very good reason that Academy Award acceptance speeches are so long – they should be, because the actor’s collaborators are largely responsible for his achievement.”