Oscar By The Numbers 2016: And the Academy Award for Best Picture Goes To . . .

Note: It’s Oscar Nomination Day, which means I have updated my 85+ 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 several years, you can probably skip the first few explanatory paragraphs and go straight to the 2016 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: historically, it’s pretty much been 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, and it could be viewed as a death knell for a Best Picture nominee’s chances to not have a related Best Director nomination. (Note: This may change in an era when there are different numbers of Best Picture and best Director nods. I looked at that factor after a narrow miss in my 2015 pick, and have made some small tweaks to account for this additional variability).

But what other nominations have the strongest within-the-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 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): 94.8% predicted best picture value.
  • All About Eve (1950): 92.5%
  • On The Waterfront (1954): 90.0%
  • Gone With the Wind (1939): 85.5%
  • The Godfather (1972): 85.2%

2016 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 Revenant: 70.1%
  • Mad Max: Fury Road: 51.4%
  • Spotlight: 40.9%
  • The Big Short: 40.4%
  • The Martian: 33.6%
  • Bridge of Spies: 31.4%
  • Room: 26.5%
  • Brooklyn: 13.4%

When compared historically, The Revenant‘s 70.1% score puts it in 21st place all-time, tied with Kramer vs Kramer, just behind Tom Jones, and just ahead of The Apartment. Credible, and much better than any of last year’s nominees, but not all-time classic either. That being said: the nearly 20 point gap between it and second place finisher, Mad Max: Fury Road, is the largest I have ever seen since I developed this model — meaning that The Revenant is the most shoo-in of shoo-in winners that I’ve forecast to date. If it doesn’t win the big prize, then this multi-year model is clearly a failure, and I will report it as such, with 2016 being my final year of forecasting. But I seriously doubt that’s going to be the outcome.

Other observations about the data set this year:

  • There’s a very odd disconnect between the acting nominations and the Best Picture nominations: there are only three Actress nominations (lead and supporting) and eight Actor nominations (likewise) among the eight Best Picture nominees. Even back in the days of five Best Picture nominees, you could generally get more than eleven combined acting nominations between what are arguably the year’s best films.
  • I would think that the relatively small number of Acting nods among the Best Pictures nominees would indicate that voters favored visuals and spectacle over scenery-chewing in 2015, but that’s not really borne out either: there are only four Film Editing, three Visual Effects, and two Cinematography nominations among the Best Picture nominees, with the other technical awards scattered as well.
  • Brooklyn is among the most undeserving Best Picture nominees ever. If it won, it would beat out only Grand Hotel and Wings in terms of its score, and that’s mainly because many of the modern categories didn’t exist when those two very early films received their nods. In terms of the expected correlations between the categories, Carol would have been a far more deserving eighth choice . . . never mind the inexplicable exclusion of Inside Out from the biggest dance at the party. This same sort of statistically anomalous Best Picture nomination occurred last year with Selma, but at least there I could conceive of how Academy voters would have gravitated toward that film to provide some much needed diversity among the nominees. I would have expected similar treatment for the superior and deserving Straight Outta Compton this year. I simply don’t understand how Brooklyn got in. Bizarre.
  • Beyond Inside Out and Straight Outta Compton missing the Best Picture slate, I would personally count the biggest snub of the year to be Bel Powley’s exclusion in the Best Actress category for Diary of a Teenage Girl, which also deserved a screenplay nod. It’s a harrowing, hard-to-watch performance, but if you’re a person who was a certain age in a certain era, it resonates with truth and accuracy. Boo on that front, Oscar. And also on the continued late of diversity among the nominees. That’s bad, truly.

So, in conclusion, here’s looking forward to The Revenant winning Best Picture in a few weeks, from the standpoint of my model being correct. Unfortunately on a personal front, I’m not very interested in seeing it, because it comes across as little more than high-end/high-brow torture pr0n, and I don’t generally go to the movies to watch people suffer over and over and over and over again, or to get grossed out, just for the sake of being grossed out. I suppose I will watch it at some point, but not with any enthusiasm.

2 thoughts on “Oscar By The Numbers 2016: And the Academy Award for Best Picture Goes To . . .

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