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Modern Best Picture winners receive fewer references in subsequent films than their predecessors did
“GREEN BOOK”? Critics sneered when Academy Award voters named this saccharine tale of a friendship between a black pianist and his white, tough-guy chauffeur the Best Picture of 2018. Yet rather than being a rare injustice, the award reinforced a trend. The top Oscar has increasingly gone to films that are soon forgotten.
A film’s quality is in the eye of the beholder. Its influence, however, can be measured more objectively. IMDb, a crowdsourced online database, contains a list of references to every film in subsequent films and TV shows. For example, “Casablanca” has over 1,600 references, including a discussion in “When Harry Met Sally” and a poster in “True Romance”.
The data are spotty: films from the 1980s get four times as many references as those from the 1940s. However, the same bias presumably applies to all films made in a given year. So a rough proxy for a movie’s cultural influence is to count how many times it was referred to in subsequent years, and then compare its tally with those of all other films made in the same year.
Decades ago, Best Picture nominees were regularly among the most influential films. Fully 68% of references to films made in 1939 are to “Gone with the Wind” (a winner) and “The Wizard of Oz” (nominated). A statistical model shows that in the 1950s, Best Picture winners had a 20% chance of being the most-referred-to film.
That changed with the advent of “Star Wars”, summer blockbusters and sequels. Since the 1970s the films most referred to have been commercial flicks. Oscar voters usually spurn such movies; the ones they do like have become commercially less successful, and thus less culturally relevant. Best Picture winners today have just a 2% chance of leading the references table. By snubbing “Black Panther” (which already has 151 references) and the art film “Roma”, this year’s voters scoffed at both cultural influence and critical acclaim.
Sources: IMDB; The Economist
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