There are lots of great options for impressing your friends on Oscar night, from studying the movies to reading critic reviews to browsing expert predictions. But would you believe me if I told you there was a better way to win your Oscar pool: math?
I am a senior at Harvard studying applied math, and for the past four years, I have used nothing but data and statistics to handicap the Oscars. My model has done quite well, predicting at least 75 percent of the winners annually, and even picking some notable upsets including Meryl Streep’s 2012 best actress win and Ang Lee’s 2013 best director award.
How does my algorithm work? I have gathered thousands of data points on Oscar ceremonies over the past two decades – such as categories movies are nominated in, other awards show results, and aggregate critic scores – and I use statistics to calculate how good a predictor each of those metrics is in each Oscar category. Then, I plug in the numbers from this year’s awards season, and that gives me the percentage chance that each film will win in each category.
For example, in the best actor category, the British equivalent of the Oscars (BAFTA), the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), and a host of other organizations pick their winners. Often, these groups don’t all agree. So, I use math to determine, based upon previous years’ results, how much we should listen to each group. I have set up the formulas such that the math automatically gives higher weights to those predictors that have done a better job of forecasting the Oscars in the past.
Of course, numbers alone can’t predict the Academy Awards. Low percentage chances do occur on occasion. That’s the fun of it. But this year, here’s what my calculations tell me.
Editor’s note: We’ve added the actual winners to the predictions below, as announced at the Feb. 22 Academy Awards.
With all due respect to “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” this is a two-horse race between “Birdman” and “Boyhood.” Many smart people will pick “Boyhood” – it is certainly a remarkable artistic achievement, and it did win the BAFTAs and the Golden Globe for best drama. But “Birdman” claimed the SAG award for best cast, the Producers Guild Award (PGA), and, most importantly, the Directors Guild Award (DGA). The last of those three has predicted 80 percent of the last 15 best picture winners, so think long and hard before betting against “Birdman.”
Winner: Birdman (correct)
In this category as well, the DGA is the best predictor. Alejandro G. Inarritu claimed that award, and that automatically makes him the favorite, though the math suggests we can’t rule out Richard Linklater. The disclaimer here is that the math strongly prefers that the same film win both of the top two awards, since that is such a common occurrence in Oscar history. If there is a picture/director split, as in the last two years, it’s quite possible that “Boyhood” takes one category or the other.
Winner: Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman (correct)
The three best predictors for the two top acting categories are the SAGs, the Golden Globes (drama), and the BAFTAs. Eddie Redmayne won all three for “The Theory of Everything.” It’s possible that Michael Keaton wins but, make no mistake, that would be a mathematical upset.
Winner: Eddie Redmayne (correct)
Julianne Moore swept the SAGs, the Golden Globes (drama), and the BAFTAs. She should win in a landslide for her role in “Still Alice.”
Winner: Julianne Moore (correct)
The year of non-competitive acting races continues. J.K. Simmons (“Whiplash”) took those same three major acting predictors, and he will run away with the Oscar.
Winner: J.K. Simmons (correct)
Yet again, the major predictors all agree. Put a check mark next to Patricia Arquette’s name, for “Boyhood.”
Winner: Patricia Arquette (correct)
Normally, the Writers Guild (WGA) is a strong predictor, correctly forecasting 70 percent of screenplay races over the past 15 years. But this year, “Birdman” was ruled ineligible by the WGA, enabling “The Grand Budapest Hotel” to make a strong stand with wins from the WGAs and the BAFTAs. The math is essentially saying, “this race is a toss-up,” but Golden Globe and Critics Choice wins make “Birdman” a slight favorite.
Winner: Birdman (correct)
Another two-film race, though not quite as close as its original screenplay counterpart. “The Theory of Everything” jumped into second place with a BAFTA win, but a WGA victory for “The Imitation Game” is the biggest reason to place it first.
Winner: The Imitation Game (correct)
Bizarre. “The LEGO Movie,” which has been receiving honor after honor, was somehow not even nominated by the Academy. Then, the Golden Globes chose “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” and it seems the entire Hollywood community has assumed the race is settled. Not so fast. The Globes have only been picking this category for eight years, they already have two misses, and quite a few of the other predictors selected “Big Hero 6.” The math suggests this is a much closer race then people realize, but “Dragon 2” is in fact the correct frontrunner.
Winner: Big Hero 6 (incorrect)
“Ida” accomplished the impressive feat of being nominated for both best foreign language film and at least one other award – in this case, best cinematography. That alone would have made “Ida” the frontrunner, but the Polish film has also earned honors from a wide variety of sources.
Winner: Ida (correct)
The BAFTAs only recently revitalized this category, so their choice of “Citizenfour” isn’t as helpful as it might seem. But the DGAs also picked the Edward Snowden profile, which makes it the weak frontrunner in a difficult category to predict mathematically.
Winner: Citizenfour (correct)
In recent years the Academy has had a habit of awarding best visual effects to the film with the most overall nominations. While that’s not the only factor I use in my model, it’s definitely part of why “Interstellar” – the only contender with more than two nominations – comes out on top.
Winner: Interstellar (correct)
Very astute Oscar viewers may be a little surprised to see “Birdman” in first here, since normally a film needs a best production design nomination to win best cinematography. But there are exceptions – “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008) is the most recent – and the math says that BAFTA and American Society of Cinematographers guild winner “Birdman” will be one of them.
Winner: Birdman (correct)
There’s not enough mathematical precedent to back this statement up, but I’m going to say it anyway: If you edit 12 years of footage down to a critically acclaimed film, you will win best film editing in a landslide. Strangely, the BAFTAs didn’t even nominate “Boyhood” in this category, but the win from the much more predictive American Cinema Editors guild was enough to put Linklater’s film comfortably in first.
Winner: Whiplash (incorrect)
While not the most-watched race of the evening, this will be one of the most exciting. The Motion Picture Sound Editors honored “American Sniper,” the Cinema Audio Society (a better predictor for best sound mixing) chose “Birdman,” and the BAFTAs (also a better predictor of the other sound category) selected un-nominated “Whiplash.” That makes this race the definition of a toss-up, but the math favors “Sniper.”
Winner: American Sniper (correct)
How can my algorithm choose a frontrunner, “Whiplash,” that wasn’t even nominated by the Cinema Audio Society? The answer is its BAFTA victory: the British have a great track record here, picking two thirds of champions over the past 15 years. But at a 2 percent gap between first and second, this is the single closest race of the evening. Don’t be surprised if “American Sniper” winds up sweeping the sound awards.
Winner: Whiplash (correct)
No film since “Gladiator” (2000) has won both the BAFTA and the Art Directors Guild award for a period film without managing to win the corresponding Oscar. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” should sail to victory here.
Winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel (correct)
Same situation as in production design. No nominee since “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) has won both the BAFTA and the Costume Designers Guild award without winning the Oscar. Score another victory for “Grand Budapest Hotel.”
Winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel (correct)
This is another category in which more total nominations increases a film’s chance of winning. Add in BAFTA and guild victories for “Grand Budapest Hotel” and you’ve got a pretty clear winner in what’s normally a very difficult category to predict.
Winner: Grand Budapest Hotel (correct)
Any film except “Mr. Turner” could win this one. The Golden Globes are the best predictor, with a not-too-impressive 53 percent rate that’s just enough to put “The Theory of Everything” out in front.
Winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel (incorrect)
There are no great predictors in this category, which is why the Golden Globe and Critics Choice wins for “Glory” aren’t enough to even put it above 50 percent. By the same token, all of the critic circle victories for “Everything is Awesome” aren’t enough to catapult it into first place. This is a category that may very well come down to which film – “Selma” or “The LEGO Movie” – voters feel was more snubbed.
Winner: Glory (correct)
Note: There is not enough data to predict the three short film categories using math, mainly because most other awards shows don’t make selections in those categories. But if you’re using this article to fill out your Oscar ballot, I’d recommend “The Phone Call” in the live action category, “Feast” for animated short, and “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1” for documentary short. Those are all films that have gained a lot of critical praise this year.
Ben Zauzmer can be reached @BensOscarMath.