Predicting This Year’s Oscar Winners Using Just Math
It has often been said that we watch movies to escape reality. If that is so, then there has rarely been a better year for movies. They may have looked different – smaller screens, no crowds, no popcorn makers – but in 2020 the world of cinema still delivered an impressive array of stories, joyous and solemn, that took us out of our COVID-ridden present and sent us journeying to times and places far away.
For those of us who enjoy the Academy Awards, Sunday night’s ceremony will be a continuation of that escape – to a glitzy world where the most important thing is whether or not an actor wins a golden trophy.
Every year, I calculate the mathematical probability of each nominee winning in all feature-film categories, based on which other categories a film is nominated in, how the nominee has done at prior awards shows, betting markets, average critic scores, and more, weighted by how well each of those predictors have aligned with the Oscars in the past. I do this not because math can perfectly predict these awards, but because – hopefully – it provides even more entertainment for some Oscar viewers who enjoy knowing the favorites and the underdogs going into the ceremony. And if numbers or data or statistics can provide any ounce of entertainment, there’s no better time than the present.
No best picture frontrunner is ever a sure thing until the envelope is opened. Just ask Brokeback Mountain or The Revenant. Sometimes it’s not even a sure thing even after the envelope is opened (sorry, La La Land). But this year, Nomadland has done about all it can do to bolster its Oscar resume. Directors Guild? Check. Producers Guild? Check. BAFTAs? Check. Critics Choice Awards? Check. All of that adds up to a two-in-three chance of winning the top prize.
Perhaps the only major shortcoming on Nomadland’s awards season run is its lack of a best cast nomination at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. It’s not enough for Chloe Zhao’s film to fall out of first place, but it does make SAG winner The Trial of the Chicago 7 a sneaky upset pick, just ahead of Promising Young Woman and Minari.
We’ve seen different films win best picture and best director in five of the past eight years. The last time that occurred was the 1930s. Though we are living through an era when picture/director splits are more frequent, the math is not predicting that. Chloe Zhao perfectly meshed a real-life story, real-life people, real-life scenery, and Hollywood actors into this year’s all-American best picture frontrunner, and it’s earned her best director frontrunner status as well.
In the evening’s most somber category, Chadwick Boseman’s likely best actor win for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom tragically reminds us of just how many more superb performances he could have given us. If he were to win on Sunday night, he would join Peter Finch (Network) and Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight) as the only posthumous Oscar winners in acting categories.
But if we are to see a surprise in this category, the model says the next most likely winner is Anthony Hopkins (The Father). This is fueled in large part by his fellow countrymen bestowing the BAFTA best actor trophy upon him.
Don’t believe anyone who tells you they know for certain who will win best actress. This is the night’s toughest category to predict. Carey Mulligan (Promising Young Woman) won the Critics Choice Award, Frances McDormand (Nomadland) won the BAFTA, Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) won the SAG Award, and Andra Day (The United States vs Billie Holiday) won the Golden Globe. Got all that?
The math says all four have at least a 15 percent chance of winning, the statistical equivalent of the shrug emoji. One factor helping Mulligan and McDormand rise above the other three: Across all 92 years of the Oscars, actresses in best picture nominees have a 35 percent winning rate; all others are at 12 percent. But Renee Zellweger, Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, and Meryl Streep all overcame that last decade, so perhaps that correlation is fading away.
Best Supporting Actor
Daniel Kaluuya (Judas and the Black Messiah) is the single most likely nominee to win in any of this year’s categories. 91.6 percent is not 100 percent, and upsets do happen, but this is the least likely category to see the unexpected. His memorable performance as Fred Hampton has captured the applause of voters in nearly every awards show leading up to the Oscars, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t be the same here.
He does have to contend with co-star LaKeith Stanfield, who was not nominated at some of those earlier awards shows, but Kaluuya is so far ahead that the model isn’t too worried about vote-splitting.
Best Supporting Actress
For a time, best supporting actress looked just as confusing as best actress, with the Golden Globe going to Jodie Foster (The Mauritanian, but not an Oscar nominee) and the Critics Choice Award going to Maria Bakalova (Borat Subsequent Moviefilm). But then the Screen Actors Guild and BAFTAs agreed on Yuh-Jung Youn, the tough-but-sweet grandmother in Minari, and the picture got a lot clearer. It’s not nearly as easy a pick as best supporting actor, but Yuh-Jung Youn has a three-in-five chance to win.
Best Original Screenplay
Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman) is also up for best picture and best director. But with Chloe Zhao (Nomadland) leading both of those categories, best original screenplay is Fennell’s best chance to come home with an Oscar for her biting and brilliant commentary on society’s treatment of women.
Fennell’s toughest competition comes from Aaron Sorkin (The Trial of the Chicago 7) who won the Golden Globe and is looking for his second Oscar after a win for The Social Network.
Best Adapted Screenplay
Chloe Zhao (Nomadland) could join Billy Wilder (The Apartment), Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather Part II), James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment), Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings III), the Coen Brothers (No Country for Old Men), Alejandro G. Inarritu (Birdman), and Bong Joon Ho (Parasite) as the only people to win Oscars for producing, directing, and writing a movie.
Zhao won the Critics Choice Award and the USC Scripter Award, but wasn’t eligible at the Writers Guild Awards, who chose Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. The BAFTAs honored The Father, which puts that script in second place.
Best Animated Feature
Don’t overthink this one as you fill out your Oscar ballot. Soul has a five-in-six chance to win Pixar its 11th best animated feature trophy – and this category has only been around for 20 years. But this is the first time that Pixar has to go up against one of its own, as Onward is also in contention this year. If Soul and Onward split the Pixar vote, look to Wolfwalkers as the next most likely champion.
Best Documentary Feature
For those who follow awards season closely, this might be the model’s most surprising pick. My Octopus Teacher won a BAFTA and an Eddie, and was the only one of these five even nominated by the Directors Guild. But my model uses more than just the most prominent predictors, and when it comes to best documentary feature, no single predictor has a great track record. A bunch of the lesser-followed critics circles opted instead for Time, and the sum of those weights pushed it into first place, while still below 50 percent. My Octopus Teacher could easily still win, as most experts are predicting. But the data says this race is far from over.
Best International Film
Best international film is a unique category this year. The Golden Globes, often a decent predictor, chose Minari for its foreign language film category, which wasn’t eligible at the Oscars as an American production. That leaves open a spot for these five movies to win an Oscar. Collective makes a strong case, as just the second movie (after Honeyland a year ago) to be nominated both here and in best documentary. But Thomas Vinterberg scored a best director nod for Another Round, which is too much for the math to ignore.
Best Production Design
Mank easily received the most nominations this year, with 10 (no other film had more than 6). And yet, thus far we haven’t seen David Fincher’s film anywhere near the top of the charts. For best production design, however, Donald Graham Burt and Jan Pascale have swept the precursor awards thanks to their picture-perfect, black-and-white recreation of 1930s Hollywood and Hearst Castle. As it turns out, the film upon which Mank is based, Citizen Kane, lost this category to none other than How Green Was My Valley, the same film which denied it a clearly deserved best picture win.
Joshua James Richards (Nomadland) appeared to be gliding to an easy Oscar victory until just this past Sunday. On that day, the American Society of Cinematographers weighed in, during the final precursor award before this article was written. In a ceremony hosted by Ben Mankiewicz, the biopic of Ben’s grandfather Herman won top honors. That blew the Oscar race wide open. The math still likes Nomadland to come out ahead, but only by a slim 11 percent margin.
Best Film Editing
Chloe Zhao (Nomadland) definitely has a shot at a fourth Oscar in this category, but the math gives better odds to Eddie Award winner The Trial of the Chicago 7 and BAFTA winner Sound of Metal. This one is so close that the top two contenders tied at the Critics Choice Awards.
In addition to being a significant Oscar category in its own right, this is also a key category to watch for the best picture race. Nomadland will still be favored either way, but the amount that movie will be favored by can go up or down through the night. A Chicago 7 win here might mean the best picture race is just a little closer than we’d thought.
Best Visual Effects
You have to feel for Tenet, delayed three times due to the pandemic then failing to break even amidst a world of shuttered or limited-capacity theaters. But at least Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster may come away with an Oscar for Visual Effects. Tenet won the BAFTA (and many other visual effects honors) while The Midnight Sky won the Visual Effects Society’s top award. The difference? The BAFTAs have only missed on this category three times in the last fifteen years; the VFX society has missed three of the last five.
Best Original Score
Soul’s jazzy score could make that film just the second to win both best animated feature and best original score, after Up. In addition to the original compositions by Jon Batiste, Soul features a score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, already Oscar winners for The Social Network. Reznor and Ross’ main competition is … themselves, for Mank. Not a bad spot to be in.
Best Original Song
Much like best actress, you could put together a compelling case for why any of these songs should be favored. The math is going with “Speak Now” (One Night in Miami) by Sam Ashworth and Leslie Odom Jr. (also a best supporting actor nominee). But no song is above 50 percent, and the Academy could instead decide to finally end Diane Warren’s 0-for-11 streak by choosing “Io si.”
Best Costume Design
Ann Roth (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) is one of the most prolific costume designers of stage and screen over the last seven decades, and is back at the Oscars for the first time since 2002. She’s looking for her second trophy after The English Patient, and the math gives her strong odds to get it. Should the Academy bypass Roth, we’re probably looking at a race between Alexandra Byrne (Emma) and Trish Summerville (Mank).
Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Despite not being nominated for best picture, it’s actually pretty easy to envision a scenario in which Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom walks away with the most awards: It’s favored for best actor, best costume design, and best makeup and hairstyling, and Viola Davis could easily emerge from the crowded best actress field. One or two Nomadland stumbles, and Ma Rainey could be the only film with four winners on Sunday night. But that would have to include a makeup and hair win.
Best sound is actually the toughest category for my model this year. Not in terms of picking the winner – Sound of Metal is the clear favorite. But I try to get each individual percentage correct, not just the winner, and that’s very hard when the Academy changes its rules, such as combining two categories into one. All I could do was plug this year’s data into my old sound editing and sound mixing models, and weight the two sets of percentages equally.
There isn’t enough data to predict the short film categories mathematically. While not a perfect predictor, betting markets currently favor The Letter Room for Live Action Short, If Anything Happens I Love You for Animated Short, and A Love Song for Latasha for Documentary Short.
All of these predictions – like all statistical forecasts – are built on the premise that the past is a decent indicator of the future. In a year that was so different from anything that came before it, who know how true that premise will be. The uncertainty embedded in our every step this year seeps into uncertainty on a more trivial scale, who will win at the Oscars. But uncertainty at awards shows also means greater excitement, providing an even more thrilling escape on Hollywood’s biggest night.
Ben Zauzmer is the author of Oscarmetrics: The Math Behind the Biggest Night in Hollywood.
April 24, 9:45 am PST Updated chart percentage and entry for best supporting actress to reflect that Maria Bakalova won the Critics Choice Award for Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.