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Why 'Star Wars' Won't Win the Best Picture Oscar

We use different criteria to decide which creative products we like, and which we find worthy of recognition.
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(Photo: Lucasfilm)

(Photo: Lucasfilm)

It's entertainment awards season, which means our cinemas are, for a short while, filled with "prestige" movies. See them while you can: In a few weeks, sequels and superheroes will again dominate our nation's screens.

This is an odd phenomenon when you think about it: There is one group of movies we honor, and a different one we actually enjoy (assuming box office receipts are indicative of public favor). The same can be said for recorded music, and, to an increasing extent, Broadway shows.

This is partially explained by the fact that awards voters have different, arguably more sophisticated tastes than the general public. But it's a safe bet that, while industry insiders are enjoying the new Star Wars film as much as anyone else, they're unlikely to consider it a serious contender for Best Picture.

New research provides a plausible explanation. It suggests that, when judging whether a creative work is worthy of recognition, we take into account such factors as authenticity and creative control—that is, whether the song, film, or symphony is the untampered-with expression of one artist's vision.

It'll be interesting to see whether the power of the Force can overcome the desire to reward an autonomous artistic genius.

But when deciding what we want to see or hear—or, for that matter, eat or drink—we tend to use the simple metric of whether we're likely to find the experience enjoyable. Those aforementioned factors are, in most cases, irrelevant.

"Being lauded is not the same as being liked," a research team led by Francesca Valsesia of the University of Southern California writes in the Journal of Consumer Research.

The process of choosing among competing works triggers "thoughts about the identity of the creator, and how the product was created," the researchers argue. When this conjures images of studio executives or record-label bosses pulling strings behind the scenes, the work becomes less award-worthy in our minds.

"We find creative control matters because it is associated with perceptions of creative authenticity—a belief that the outcome closely adheres to the creator's vision," the researchers write. "The more control the executor exerts over the creative process, the more creatively authentic the outcome is perceived to be"—and the more likely the work is to receive recognition.

Valsesia and her colleagues provide evidence for their thesis in a series of five studies. The first focused on pop music hits—specifically, songs that reached the Number One spot on Billboard's Hot 100 list between 1958 and 2012. The list featured 1,029 hit singles by 613 unique artists.

First, the researchers noted "the extent to which the song's performers was involved in the writing process, and thus credited with authorship." They then looked at whether the song achieved "platinum record" status (selling one million copies or more), and whether it was included in the All Time Top 3,000 Songs list, which features the best recording as named by critics and industry insiders.

"We find Number One songs performed by artists with greater creative control were far more likely to be the recipient of recognition," they write, "but were not more likely to achieve the elite benchmark of certified platinum sales."

The second study featured 74 University of Southern California undergraduates, who listened to, and evaluated, six pop songs from the late 1990s. Half the songs were described as being written by the performer, while the others were identified as the product of a different composer. These labels were assigned randomly, and did not reflect actual authorship; some participants were told, for example, that Sara McLachlan wrote "Adia," but others were informed that she only recorded it.

After listening to a snippet of each song, participants reported how much they liked it (on a one-to-seven scale). At the end, they decided which three of the six deserved to be included in a "time capsule" of 1990s culture being created by the Smithsonian.

"Creative control did not appear to matter when respondents were asked to indicate how much they liked each song," the researchers report. However, "regardless of which songs were described as the work of an individual, those songs stood a greater chance of making it into the time capsule."

The researchers found one set of circumstances where this rule does not apply, In a study where participants evaluated Cajun food, people's likes and dislikes (as well as their choices as to which dishes deserved recognition) were influenced by assertions of the chef's autonomy.

This was a case where participants were "unfamiliar with the product, and thus not very confident in their own appraisals," the researchers note. "We believe these cases are the exception rather than the rule, especially given that literature has shown that consumers are typically overconfident in their judgment."

So if you're only slightly familiar with classical music, and a critic proclaims a conductor's Beethoven Fifth as the best he has ever heard, you're probably going to enjoy it too. But if a movie critic disses a film you enjoyed, he's just a snob.

The results suggest it's not a coincidence that cinema began to be taken seriously as an art form around the same time the auteur theory arose. That still-controversial school of thought views the director as the "author" of a film, downplaying the collaborative aspects of moviemaking to view the finished product as the vision of a single artist.

While that seems reductive to many of us, it's easy to see how it could help films get cultural recognition. We had to have masters before we could acclaim their films as masterpieces.

So who is the "author" of Star Wars: The Force Awakens? Director J.J. Abrams is an obvious choice, except that he was working from a template created by George Lucas, with the input of screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, and under the firm control of the Disney corporation.

The implication of this research is that the collaborative nature of its creation significantly reduces Star Wars' chances of winning major awards.

It'll be interesting to see whether the power of the Force can overcome the desire to reward an autonomous artistic genius.


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.