Oscar by the Numbers 2013: And the Academy Award for Best Picture Goes to . . .
January 11, 2013 8 Comments
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, 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 three films in history (Driving Miss Daisy the sole anomaly 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. This essentially makes the Academy’s recent approach of nominating more than five films for Best Picture a pointless enterprise, unless they are going to also allow the number of Director nominations to increase beyond five. For all intents and purposes, once the nominations are made, only those Best Pictures with related Best Director nods are actually in contention. The rest are just window-dressing.
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 the most valuable of the minor/technical awards.
- Adapted screenplays are twice as valuable as original screenplays.
- A nominated score helps, a nominated song hurts.
I developed a mathematical model that consolidates all of these factors to produce a single consolidated rating of “Best Picture-likelihood” on a scale of 0 to 100%. 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. 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): 95.3% predicted best picture value.
- All About Eve (1950): 93.1%
- On The Waterfront (1954): 89.6%
- Gone With the Wind (1939): 85.6%
- The Godfather (1996): 84.7%
So what happens when you load this year’s nine Best Picture nominees into the database and crunch the numbers? You get these results:
- Lincoln: 86.9% predicted best picture value.
- Life of Pi: 61.9%
- Silver Linings Playbook: 60.3%
- Argo: 40.7%
- Les Miserables: 33.3%
- Beasts of the Southern Wild: 26.9%
- Django Unchained: 22.7%
- Amour: 21.5%
- Zero Dark Thirty: 18.7%
So Lincoln is a shoo-in to win the big prize given its extremely strong predicted best picture value, which is right up there with the top five most obvious winners in history. By contrast, last year’s predicted and actual winner, The Artist, won in a very weak year with a score of only 66.6%, when far more worthy films (Melancholia and Bridesmaids come to mind) didn’t even get nominated. I went on record declaring last year’s Oscar nominations as the worst in my lifetime, but I actually feel pretty good about this year’s slate. It’s nice that the Academy bounced back a bit this year in terms of making smart nominations.
So congrats to Lincoln and its cast and crew. You should all be clearing Oscar space on your mantels now.