Oscar by the Numbers 2013: And the Academy Award for Best Picture Goes to . . .

After-the-Awards Update: Well, for the first (and still only) time since I developed the model discussed in the “Backgrounds and Methods” section below, it failed me: the 2013 numbers clearly pointed to Lincoln as the Best Picture winner, but Argo pulled off the upset, despite its lack of Best Director nomination putting it in fifth place in my model among the nine nominees. While the Academy’s decision to have a larger number of “Best Picture” nominees than “Best Director” nominees may mean that the lack of the latter is no longer an absolute death knell come Oscar night, I’m still sticking with my model unadjusted, as I believe this year’s spate of industry indignation on Ben Affleck’s part makes 2013 an anomaly, not a bellwether. I seriously doubt we’ll see another “Best Picture” win without a “Best Director” for many, many years to come. And you can quote me on that. And as for Argo, just for the record, I do not think it was Best Picture-worthy, at all. The acting was mostly wooden (except for John Goodman and Alan Arkin), and once the intense opening scenes in the U.S. Embassy in Teheran passed, there was never any real suspense about anything, since I knew how the story ended, and I didn’t really care much of about of any of the one-dimensional hostage characters. Affleck, though, tried desperately to artificially generate a sense of suspense with some of the most cliched techniques in the filmmaker’s arsenal: will they answer the phone in time? will the driver get the truck into gear? will the Boeing 747 outrun the Chevy sedan? etc. Honestly, I don’t think Big Ben deserved Best Director, Best Actor or Best Film plaudits for the anemic Argo. I chalk this one up to Hollywood having a fit of self-love, while watching a movie about Hollywood having a fit of self-love while selflessly saving some hostages. I fully believe that in a few years (if not weeks), people will look at Argo’s Best Picture award as being just as inexplicable as the one given to Driving Miss Daisy, the last movie to win Best Picture without a Best Director nod.

Background and Methods:

People have long tried to handicap the Best Picture Academy Award based on a variety of factors, most commonly performance in other award shows leading up to the Big Pageant. Being a stats and numbers geek, it occurred to me that a far better approach to handicapping the top prize would be to consider the internal relationships within the Academy, essentially evaluating what they nominate against what they award. Toward this end, I built a quantitative database of all Academy Award nominations back to the beginning in 1928, and then mathematically evaluated the correlations between Best Picture victory and other nominations.

What does that mean in English? Start here: it’s pretty much a given that you need a Best Director nomination to win Best Picture, since only three films in history (Driving Miss Daisy the sole anomaly in modern times) have ever won the top prize without their Directors also being nominated. So the correlation between Best Director nomination and Best Picture victory is extremely strong. This essentially makes the Academy’s recent approach of nominating more than five films for Best Picture a pointless enterprise, unless they are going to also allow the number of Director nominations to increase beyond five. For all intents and purposes, once the nominations are made, only those Best Pictures with related Best Director nods are actually in contention. The rest are just window-dressing.

But what other nominations have the strongest intra-Academy correlations to Best Picture success? When you crunch the data set, you come up with some interesting, often counter-intuitive conclusions. Here are a small number of them:

  • Actor nominations are dramatically more valuable than actress nominations.
  • Cinematography is also more valuable than actress nominations.
  • Film editing is the most valuable of the minor/technical awards.
  • Adapted screenplays are twice as valuable as original screenplays.
  • A nominated score helps, a nominated song hurts.

I developed a mathematical model that consolidates all of these factors to produce a single consolidated rating of “Best Picture-likelihood” on a scale of 0 to 100%. In essence, Best Picture nominees that receive certain combinations of other nominations become almost shoo-ins to win, so it’s not just about who gets the most nominations, but instead about who gets the right ones. Under my rubric, the five most-obvious Best Picture winners ever, based on their own year’s slate of nominations, were:

  • From Here to Eternity (1953): 95.3% predicted best picture value.
  • All About Eve (1950): 93.1%
  • On The Waterfront (1954): 89.6%
  • Gone With the Wind (1939): 85.6%
  • The Godfather (1996): 84.7%

2013 Picks and Analysis:

So what happens when you load this year’s nine Best Picture nominees into the database and crunch the numbers? You get these results:

  • Lincoln: 86.9% predicted best picture value.
  • Life of Pi: 61.9%
  • Silver Linings Playbook: 60.3%
  • Argo: 40.7%
  • Les Miserables: 33.3%
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild: 26.9%
  • Django Unchained: 22.7%
  • Amour: 21.5%
  • Zero Dark Thirty: 18.7%

So Lincoln is a shoo-in to win the big prize given its extremely strong predicted best picture value, which is right up there with the top five most obvious winners in history. By contrast, last year’s predicted and actual winner, The Artist, won in a very weak year with a score of only 66.6%, when far more worthy films (Melancholia and Bridesmaids come to mind) didn’t even get nominated. I went on record declaring last year’s Oscar nominations as the worst in my lifetime, but I actually feel pretty good about this year’s slate. It’s nice that the Academy bounced back a bit this year in terms of making smart nominations.

So congrats to Lincoln and its cast and crew. You should all be clearing Oscar space on your mantels now.

10 thoughts on “Oscar by the Numbers 2013: And the Academy Award for Best Picture Goes to . . .

  1. Really, this year, all you need to tell me is “Amour: 99-1” and I’m pretty much done. Nothing else that got nominated was even on my radar this year (and it really hurts me to say that about Kathryn Bigelow, whose every movie before this I have loved–yes, even Point Break–but Zero Dark Thirty just sounds like such bullshit Hollywood rah-rah-rah-USA propaganda–the exact opposite of The Hurt Locker!–that I can’t bring myself to even think about wanting to see it.)

    • I liked “Life of Pi,” and I think it will win all the visual awards, but without any acting nominations, I don’t think the Academy will view it as the complete package of film greatness.

  2. Lincoln was my first guess, without all of the geeky number-crunching. The model is pretty amazing though. Just don’t start wearing a pocket protector.

    • Yeah . . . this was a weird year, for sure . . . I think the Academy’s move to increase the number of movie noms above the number of director noms has obviously weakened the correlation between those two. I also think Affleck got big sympathy votes for “Argo” because Hollywood likes him and felt he was snubbed for a Director nod . . . and also because Hollywood LOVES movies about Hollywood: “Look at us! We saved the hostages!” We’ll see how the model shakes out this year . . . I watched “Argo” after the awards and think it was the worst Best Picture winner I’ve seen in a long, long time . . . I don’t think it deserved the nomination, much less the win. But what I do know, I picked “Lincoln”?

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