Oscar By the Numbers 2014: And the Academy Award for Best Picture Goes To . . .

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, several years ago, 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 four films in history (Driving Miss Daisy and Argo are the sole anomalies 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.

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, by far, the most valuable of the minor/technical awards.
  • Adapted screenplays are twice as valuable as original screenplays.
  • A nominated score helps a little, a nominated song hurts a lot.

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. I developed a mathematical model that consolidates all of these factors to produce a single rating of “Best Picture-likelihood” on a scale of 0 to 100%. The nominees don’t compete against each (e.g. the totals in a given year add up to more than 100%), but rather compete one-on-one against an idealized, 100.0% Oscar Best Picture Bait Movie. 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): 95.5% predicted best picture value.
  • All About Eve (1950): 92.9%
  • On The Waterfront (1954): 90.6%
  • Gone With the Wind (1939): 85.6%
  • The Godfather (1972): 85.5%

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

  • Twelve Years a Slave: 66.4% predicted best picture value
  • American Hustle: 65.8%
  • Gravity: 56.4%
  • The Wolf of Wall Street: 40.9%
  • Nebraska: 40.8%
  • Captain Phillips: 34.2%
  • Dallas Buyers Club: 32.6%
  • Philomena: 20.3%
  • Her: 17.4%

In all the years that I’ve run this model, that’s the closest that the top two contenders have ever come to each other. The key correlation that pushes Twelve Years a Slave over American Hustle is in the screenplay category: adapted screenplays (like Slave) generate many more Best Picture nods than original screenplays (like Hustle) do. So I’m going to call it for Twelve Years a Slave as the likely Best Picture for 2014, but it’s going to be a nail-biter, I think. Nobody seems a shoo-in this year, at bottom line, and it was interesting to pick up Entertainment Weekly today and see that they, too, consider it likely to be a squeaker between Slave and Hustle, with Gravity as a possible dark horse surprise.

Now, in a spirit of full disclosure I must look back at 2013, when my model failed me for the first time since I developed it. 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. At that time, I thought that the Academy’s decision to have a larger number of “Best Picture” nominees than “Best Director” nominees may have no longer meant that not having the latter is an absolute death knell come Oscar night. But with 10 months to think about it, I’m still sticking with my model, as I believe last 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 did 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 already), 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.

So bring on the 2014 Awards, and best of luck to Twelve Years A Slave . . . let’s see if it can out-run American Hustle by a hair, as my model predicts it will. At bottom line: whoever wins, I’ll bet dollars to donuts they’re going to have a Best Director nomination in the bag.

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