Oscar-grubbing movies and lobbyists deploy similar tactics, says new study

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Lobbyists seeking pork and Oscar-hopeful filmmakers share the same risk-and-reward structure, according to a study released a day before the Academy of Motion Pictures releases the 2014 Oscar nominees.

UCLA sociologists Gabriel Rossman and Oliver Schilke analyzed records of 3,000 Oscar-nominated films released between 1985 and 2009 using the same models used to analyze political lobbying.

Their empirical findings validate what viewers and critics easily identify as a movie’s “Oscar-ness” — characteristics that go beyond the movie’s quality or enjoyment, such as whether the film has an historical, biographical, war, or show-business theme.

Further, they find, filmmakers decide early on whether they will “take the bait” and go for a movie that will garner the Academy’s attention, despite the costs of doing so. Similarly, lobbyists have their eye on a specific prize when they make political contributions.

“Just like an industry seeking favorable legislation either does or does not get the legislation but first has to provide campaign contributions and the like, a movie studio has to commit to making a movie that follows an Oscar strategy before finding out if it will actually get nominations,” Russman said of this study, published in the American Sociological Review.

If the lobbyist or filmmaker does not get the legislation or nomination, they don’t get their money back. But if they do, the results are valuable.

The Tullock lottery, the economic model used by this study and studies of lobbyists, is illustrated by the “all pay auction”.  In these, every bidder pays regardless of whether he wins — yet only the highest bidder is awarded the prize. Bids are typically hidden from other bidders. Because of this, over-bidding is more common than in straight auctions.

For example, if an auction were held for $100, and you bid $30 for it but your competitor bids $31, you lose both your $30 and the prize itself.

To researchers, the all-pay lottery exemplifies decision-making by K Street firms… and, apparently, the choices made in Hollywood, too.