Dev Patel in a scene from the movie Lion.
Dev Patel in a scene from the movie Lion. Mark Rogers

Un-American tale makes Lion weakest link in Oscars line-up

THE science of psychology suggests you're most likely to walk away from the Oscars with a golden statue if your film tells an American story.

So does that mean Australian film Lion, which has hit the number eight spot on the list of the most popular Australian films of all time, doesn't stand a chance at this year's awards?

University of Queensland School of Psychology researcher Dr Nik Steffens has found the recognition of a quality creative performance is influenced by a "one of us' mentality.

"We examined what makes a creative performance likely to be seen as exceptional, and found that shared social group made an enormous difference," Dr Steffens said.

"The findings from our study have implications for the appreciation of creativity more generally - we like to think that our evaluation is objective and value-free, but in fact it is heavily structured by our group memberships."

Going on that theory, the Australian film is the weakest link out of the films nominated for Best Picture - Arrival, Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, La La Land, Lion, Manchester By the Sea, and Moonlight.


FOR REVIEW AND PREVIEW PURPOSES ONLY. Nicole Kidman, David Wenham and Sunny Pawar in a scene from the movie Lion. Supplied by Transmission Films.
Nicole Kidman, David Wenham and Sunny Pawar star in Oscar-nominated film, Lion. Mark Rogers

Lion, starring Nicole Kidman, Dev Patel and David Wenham, tells the story of a young Tasmanian man's journey to find the family he was separated from by scouring through Google Earth images of train stations in his birth country, India.

It has raked in about $22.7 million at the box office in just five weeks.

Dr Steffens and his team undertook a large-scale archival analysis of all nominations and winners for best performance by an actor/actress in a leading role categories in the US-based Oscars and the British-based BAFTAs since 1968.

Results showed US actors dominated the awards overall, winning more than 50% of all prizes across Oscars and BAFTAs, and actors were more likely to win if they shared social group membership with the judges.

This meant American actors won 52% of all BAFTAs, but 69% of all Oscars, while British actors won 18% of all Oscars but 34% of all BAFTAs.

Another important factor in award winners' success was the subject matter of the film.

In the Oscars, American artists accounted for 26% of award winners whose performance was in films about non-US culture, but for 88% of award winners whose performance was in films about American culture.

Similarly, a British actor in a movie about British culture was 20 times more likely to win a BAFTA nomination or award than a British actor in a movie about non-British culture.

"The culture that a movie represents makes a difference to the likelihood of it winning awards, and we are more likely to recognise actors from our in-group when their performance is in movies that portray 'our' in-group culture," Dr Steffens said.

Dr Steffens' research was conducted in collaboration with Professor Alex Haslam of UQ, Professor Michelle Ryan of the University of Exeter, and Professor Kathryn Millard of Macquarie University.

The study is published in the British Journal of Psychology.