And the Prize Goes To . . .

May 12, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston
When you hustle you keep score real simple. At the end of the game you count up your money. That’s how you find out who’s best. 
        “The Hustler,” screenplay by Sidney Carroll and Robert Rossen
I missed this Freakonomics post by Dave Berri back in February* – the one arguing that the Oscar award for best picture should follow the money.  Why would a presumably intelligent economist make such an argument?  I have a guess. Read on.

According to Berri, box office receipts reveal the opinion of a different but more important set of judges – “people who actually spend money to go to the movies.” 
According to that group, Marvel’s the Avengers was the “best” picture in 2012. With domestic revenues in excess of $600 million, this filmed earned nearly $200 million more than any other picture. And when we look at world-wide revenues, this film brought in more than $1.5 billion.
To rule out The Avengers is an insult to moviegoers around the world
Essentially the Oscars are an industry statement to their customers that says: “We don’t think our customers are smart enough to tell us which of our products are good. So we created a ceremony to correct our customers.”
The only reason the Oscars are of any use at all, says Berri, is that the they get people interested in the nominated films, and this interest “generates value.”  See, it’s still about the money.

OK, it’s a really stupid argument. (Some readers may have thought that Dave Berri was a typo and that the author was Dave Barry.)  The 50+ comments on the post were not kind.  Many of the comments criticised Berri’s economics, noting that many factors besides the quality of the movie can influence gross sales –  advertising budgets, production costs, barriers to entry, etc.

But I think everyone overlooked the real point of the post.  It’s not about movies.  Consider that it was posted on Freakonomics.  Consider also that the Freakomics blog, books, and movie have far more viewers than do most other economic works, even widely used economics textbooks.  The implication couldn’t be clearer: when it comes time to give out the prizes in economics – the Nobel and lesser awards – the judges should factor in book sales, blog hits, movie tickets, and TV appearances.. 

Levitt, Dubner, and contributors like, oh, maybe Dave Berri would be shoo-ins . . . if it weren’t for competitors like Suze Orman and Jim Cramer.  As for Ostrom, Sen, Diamond, Schelling, Kahneman, et al. – nice try you guys, but really?


*Andrew Gelman dusted it off recently on his blog (here).

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