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Beating expectations key for Oscar hopefuls

The 92nd Academy Awards features a cast of highly accomplished Best Director nominees, including heavyweights such as Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino.

Aspiring directors may take heart, however, that they need not outperform those industry giants to build their own reputations and compete for scarce projects, new Cornell research suggests.

Instead, film directors and others in creative fields advance by exceeding expectations among peers at similar career stages, said Heeyon Kim, assistant professor of strategy in the School of Hotel Administration at the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business.

Heeyon Kim

“You’re not being compared to Scorsese immediately,” Kim said. “That makes reaching for the stars seem a little bit more attainable.”

Kim and Michael Jensen, professor of strategy at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, are co-authors of “Reaching for the Stars: The Importance of Reputational Rank in Creative Career Development,” published Dec. 24 in the journal Poetics.

In the study, Kim and Jensen examined who gets ahead in the film industry. The answer, they found, was not simply who grossed the most money or garnered the most awards – the focus of most prior reputational studies, and measures that inherently favor veterans, Kim said.

The researchers found a useful guide in the Danish Film Institute, which contributes funding to most of the films made in Denmark and must evaluate which projects to support.

Kim and Jensen analyzed the careers of more than 100 graduates of the Danish national film school between 1974 and 2013. They developed models to try to explain who got to make more films – how, for example, Lars von Trier and Susanne Bier became their country’s equivalents of a Scorsese or Tarantino.

The best predictor compared the commercial and artistic success achieved by directors with similar experience levels, measuring how well they performed relative to other novice, mid-career or veteran directors.

Thus, someone like Scorsese would be in a different “reference group” from, say, Damien Chazelle, who became the youngest ever Best Director Oscar winner for his third movie, “La La Land,” in 2016.

The combination of lower expectations and prestigious awards vaulted Chazelle’s reputation relative to his peers, ensuring future work and elevation to a new reference group.

“The expectations for less experienced directors are different than for Quentin Tarantino’s 10th film,” Kim said. “That makes it easier for new directors to eventually move up the hierarchy and become a veteran.”

For the veterans, expectations become harder to surpass. The study cites the example of Stanley Kubrick’s 14th film, “Eyes Wide Shut” in 1999, which was the subject of intense anticipation and ultimately seen as a disappointment.

Varying expectation levels could benefit Bong Joon Ho this awards season. The Best Director nominee for “Parasite” is a big name in South Korea but relatively unknown in the U.S., so he’s outperforming his peer group, Kim said.

While Oscar nominations will bolster all the directors’ reputations, they might be wary of Kim and Jensen’s findings from an earlier study, “The Real Oscar Curse: The Negative Consequences of Positive Status Shifts.” The authors found no evidence of a career curse among actors, but did find that male nominees and winners had significantly higher divorce rates than actors who were not nominated.

The new study is rooted in a Danish context. But its findings likely apply to Hollywood, where producers also seek to diversify portfolios with a mix of experience levels and budgets, and, Kim said, to many other career fields, including academia.

From a sociological perspective, the study sheds new light on how reputation and career mobility function in so-called project-based labor markets, where jobs are temporary and roles more fluid, the authors said. Beyond simply saying that workers must do well to advance, they explain what that actually means.

“You have to do better than your peers,” Kim said. “Your reputation within your reference group really predicts who moves up, rather than your reputation compared to everybody.”

The analysis may help explain why Hollywood and other cultural industries have long attracted an oversupply of aspiring talent: Despite long odds, success seems achievable.

“Reaching the stars incrementally,” the study concludes, “is less daunting.”

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Gillian Smith