ARUN RATH, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Did you notice a theme running through the Oscar nominees for Best Picture?
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "12 YEARS A SLAVE")
CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: (As Solomon Northup) I was born a free man, lived with my family in New York...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) Good for you, man.
EJIOFOR: (As Solomon Northup) ...until the day I was deceived...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: This is Solomon.
EJIOFOR: (As Solomon Northup) ...kidnapped, sold into slavery.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PHILOMENA")
ANNA MAXWELL MARTIN: (As Jane) I know this woman. She had a baby when she was a teenager. She's kept it secret for 50 years.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE WOLF OF WALL STREET")
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) My name is Jordan Belfort. The year I turned 26, I made $49 million, which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week.
RATH: "12 Years a Slave," "Philomena," "Wolf of Wall Street," along with "American Hustle," "Captain Phillips" and "Dallas Buyers Club," they're all based on true stories, real life, racial injustice, slavery, the Holocaust. They all seem like pretty reliable picks for Oscar nods. In February, the American Sociological Review will publish a paper about these kinds of movies, the so-called Oscar bait.
Gabriel Rossman is a professor at UCLA, and he's the lead author of the study. He says they were interested in the Oscar bait formula because it was key to a high-stakes bet.
GABRIEL ROSSMAN: Making that movie with high Oscar appeal, a movie that's targeted towards the Oscars, you really have to get the Oscars or it doesn't work, because people don't necessarily like the kinds of movies that are seeking Oscars unless they get the Oscars, in which case they actually do like them quite a bit.
RATH: Because, you know, some of these subjects, whether it's, you know, racial injustice or, you know, slavery, the Holocaust, they're not things that people necessarily want to think about or spend a lot of time with.
ROSSMAN: That's right. The kind of things that tend to get you Oscars tend to be unpleasant. And so we found that what tends to get you Oscars is biopics or historical films, to a slightly lesser extent drama or war. Sci-fi, horror and action are pretty bad for getting Oscars. Next most important thing was the plot themes. Stereotypically, it's themes having to do with disabilities or war crimes such as the Holocaust. Those are actually pretty good for getting Oscars but not quite as good as things having to do with aristocrats or political scandal.
RATH: I see.
ROSSMAN: So things having to do with Watergate or something like that are - they bury the needle. And then the other things that count a lot are a late release date. Obviously, these films all come out in award season close to Christmas. And also very often, they're released by specialty divisions of major studios that really specialize in these types of films.
RATH: But even when a film hits all of those points, it's not really a guarantee. Your paper says the movie that actually had the most Oscar appeal from 1985 to 2009 was this 1990 film about a couple split apart by the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "COME SEE THE PARADISE")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: At a time when the world was at war, they were stripped of their possessions...
TAMLYN TOMITA: (As Lily Yuriko Kawamura) What are you burning?
SHIZUKO HOSHI: (As Mrs. Kawamura) I don't want people going through our things.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (As character) Do you think they'll send us back to Japan?
TOMITA: (As Lily Yuriko Kawamura) I don't know.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (As character) I've never been to Japan.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: ...and their freedom.
DENNIS QUAID: (As Jack McGurn) My wife is an American citizen, sir.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (As character) You think the camps are wrong?
QUAID: (As Jack McGurn) Yes, sir, I do.
RATH: Yeah. So we got family tragedy, racial injustice, historical setting. It feels like "Come See the Paradise" is - they're just piling it on.
ROSSMAN: Coming up with movies like this was actually the whole point of the study, because if every movie that's trying to get an Oscar actually gets an Oscar, then we wouldn't have bothered to try and figure out which movies are trying. We could've just looked at which ones succeeded. So it was actually in order to identify films like "Come See the Paradise" that tried but failed to achieve Oscars. That's why we went through all this trouble writing thousands of lines of computer code.
Of course, the irony is that once you've - the computer's flagged such a film for you, nobody's heard of it. People don't like these kinds of movies unless they get the Oscar nomination. And I think it's worth noting that "Come See the Paradise" lost a lot of money.
RATH: And we can go to the other end of the scale now with a film - another film I'd not heard of before that scored one of your lowest rankings on the scale.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HOTEL FOR DOGS")
JAKE AUSTIN: (As Bruce) Think they belong to anyone?
EMMA ROBERTS: (As Andi) If they did, would they be here?
AUSTIN: (As Bruce) Better here than the pound. Are you thinking what I'm thinking?
ROBERTS: (As Andi) Oh, yeah. Why don't we just wander the streets and rescue every stray we see.
RATH: That is, of course, the 2009 classic "Hotel for Dogs," which finished second to last in your rankings. So you're telling me that's not Oscar material, huh?
ROSSMAN: Well, it might very well be a fine film, but it's not the kind of thing that the people were - had to return a deposit on their tuxedos. This is a good example the kind of film that's not remotely targeted towards the Oscars. First of all, the genres are comedy and family. Comedy is not that bad, but family films almost never get Oscar nominations. Also, it came out in January. And it has key words like dog that tend not to be especially highly ranked as Oscar-friendly keywords.
RATH: Have you been able to do any calculations about this year's movies?
ROSSMAN: No, I'm afraid not. It takes a few weeks of work. But just eyeballing it, it looks like these films would all score very highly on the metric.
RATH: Gabriel Rossman is a sociologist at UCLA. Dr. Rossman, thank you.
ROSSMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.