Oscar By The Numbers 2015: And the Academy Award for Best Picture Goes To . . .

Note: It’s Oscar Nomination Day, which means I have updated my 80+ year movie database and crunched the numbers to predict the Best Picture Winner, scientifically. If you have been reading my annual analysis on Oscar Nomination Day for a few years, you can probably skip the first few explanatory paragraphs and go straight to the 2015 pick and analysis. I’ve put subheads below to help you find that section.

Background and Method

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, predictable Best Picture winners ever, based on their own year’s slates of nominations, were:

  • From Here to Eternity (1953): 96.1% predicted best picture value.
  • All About Eve (1950): 93.2%
  • On The Waterfront (1954): 90.6%
  • Gone With the Wind (1939): 86.0%
  • The Godfather (1972): 85.8%

2015 Predictions and Analysis

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

  • The Imitation Game: 59.7%
  • Birdman: 57.2%
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel: 52.3%
  • Boyhood: 41.3%
  • American Sniper: 34.9%
  • Whiplash: 33.5%
  • The Theory of Everything: 29.9%
  • Selma: 0.9%

That’s a pretty tight contest between the top three films, and I’m somewhat pleased and gratified to see that Boyhood is not among the leaders, even though as I type this people are gushing about it as the shoo-in favorite after its Golden Globes performance. But I’ve heard that before, and been proven correct when rug-cutting time came. My model does not care about the Golden Globes. Nor do I, for that matter. I do, however, like all three of those front-runners, a lot, so it’s good to have a contest where I’m not actively rooting against a front runner, which is more often the case.

In addition to being a tight contest, this year’s top three race is also a contest between movies that would have been obliterated had they gone head-to-head against some of the historically spectacular films noted above. Compare From Here to Eternity‘s 96.1% chance of winning against The Imitation Game‘s 59.7% for evidence of their relative stature in the eyes of their generations’ Oscar voters. If The Imitation Games does win (and I am confident that it will), it will stand as the 49th most obvious Best Picture winner, sitting alongside the likes of Forrest Gump (1994), A Man for All Seasons (1966), Emile Zola (1937), and Platoon (1986). That feels about right: solid entertainment, but nothing that’s going to cause seismic changes in Hollywood history for a generation.

At the bottom end of this year’s nominations, I’m actually flabbergasted at the complete lack of supporting nominations behind Selma‘s big picture nod: the only other nomination it received was for Best Song, and that’s a category that actually hurts Best Picture chances. If Selma somehow inexplicably wins the big prize, only Wings (1928) and Grand Hotel (1932) would trail it in my model as the least deserving, least expected winners — and that’s in large part because a lot of the categories in which films are judged in my model today did not exist in the early Oscar slates.

Given Foxcatcher‘s strong showing in directing, acting, screenwriting and technical categories, it’s truly mind-boggling how it missed a Best Picture nomination while Selma earned one. While tongues are waggling today most strenuously about The Lego Movie‘s truly idiotic exclusion from the Best Animated Feature category, Foxcatcher‘s failure to garner a Best Picture nomination is actually statistically more shocking. On a personal front, I was disappointed to see Frank and Snowpiercer completely ignored by Uncle Oscar, though I wasn’t really surprised by that snub.

So with that as a long preamble: Bring on the 2015 Awards, and best of luck to The Imitation Game, which I predict will squeeze by Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel and capture the Academy Award for Best Motion Picture. Are you going to jump off the Boyhood bandwagon and get behind The Imitation Game now, or wait and let me say “I told you so” on February 22?

The choice is yours, though the numbers have spoken . . .

3 thoughts on “Oscar By The Numbers 2015: And the Academy Award for Best Picture Goes To . . .

  1. For the record, I’ve seen both Wings and Grand Hotel, and I adore them both. I’d have passed GH over entirely if Allison’s high school hadn’t put it on some years back and we’d gone to see it. It’s a ball. Payton Place for the pre-Depression generation. (It was remade in ’45ish. Not nearly as fun.)

    I have not seen Boyhood. And I bloody well don’t intend to, because every single Richard Linklater movie I have seen I have loathed. They’re awful, horrible things, Whit Stillman or Todd Solondz without even the artistic prenension that makes the car wrecks those guys turn out marginally watchable.

    Birdman has been the wiseguy choice since the day it was released. Most of the other critics I halfway respect have been calling it the BP winner for a while now. I haven’t seen that one, either, mostly because I didn’t have much of a chance (it’s reopening here today, though I’ve got an hour drive if I want to catch it). Inarritu is great about half the time–Amores Perros may have been the shortest two and a half hours of my life–and ridiculous the other half (21 Grams? Really?).

    • I’m with you on Linklater, for the most part . . . I am very fond of “Dazed and Confused,” and I think “School of Rock” was as charming as anything starring Jack Black can be, but otherwise, bleh. I will never forgive him for ruining “A Scanner Darkly” with rotoscope gimmickry. “Boyhood” feels like a gimmick to me, too . . . . I have had no interest in seeing since it came out.

      I really liked all three of the top contenders per my model this year . . . “Birdman” was filled with the sorts of screen-chewing acting that Oscar loves, and the massive tracking shots will appeal to the technical voters, but I think that when all’s said and done, some of the ambiguities associated with magical realism (is it happening, or is it not . . . see also “Black Swan”) will hurt it with the traditional voters. “Hotel Grand Budapest” is a little too quirky and twee for the big prize, while “Imitation Game” is solid Oscar gold: based on true story, solid acting roles, triumph over adversity story, set in Britain, and with a resonant social theme so Hollywood can pat itself on the back for making a film about a persecuted gay man its biggest winner. I am confident it’s going to win.

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