Oscars: The Math Predicts a 'La La Land' Best Picture Win

Lionsgate
'La La Land'

Casey Affleck and Emma Stone are the mathematical favorites in the top acting categories.

Will Sunday’s 89th Oscars bring another day of La La Land-like sun or will we bask in the Moonlight?

For the sixth year in a row, I am proud to present the results of my mathematical Oscars model: the probability that each nominee will win in 21 different categories. (This is part one, with parts two and three being released in the coming days.) My model uses a variety of numerical factors — from prior awards shows to critics’ scores to betting markets — to determine which nominees are likely to prevail. I weight these factors not based on hunches or personal opinion, but on how well each has done in the past at predicting the Oscars.

A word of caution: While my model has done quite well over the years, these are only probabilities, not guarantees. There is a human element to film that we will never capture mathematically.

After tying All About Eve's and Titanic’s shared record of 14 nominations, it should come as no surprise that the math favors La La Land to win the top prize. As a matter of fact, my model gives La La Land a greater chance to win than the other eight nominees combined. Beyond that, it looks most favorably upon Screen Actors Guild winner Hidden Figures (recall that last year, Spotlight won the SAG award and then the Oscar, despite numerous other losses). Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea are also in the running, but this is La La Land’s to lose.

The last time a Directors Guild winner who was nominated for best director at the Oscars lost the latter prize was 2002, when Rob Marshall (Chicago) won the DGA but Roman Polanski (The Pianist) took the Oscar. So, his Directors Guild win alone would make Damien Chazelle the favorite. Add in a BAFTA victory, the 14 nominations and a slew of other honors, and this category’s frontrunner is clear.

Casey Affleck won nearly every critics’ prize, the Golden Globe, and the BAFTA. Denzel Washington is Affleck’s strongest competition thanks to his SAG victory, so don’t be too surprised if the second-place contender finishes in first.

This category initially looked like it might be close right down to the finish line, with Natalie Portman winning some early awards, and Isabelle Huppert and Emma Stone taking the two Golden Globes. But then Stone rode her Golden Globe momentum to wins at the Screen Actors Guild and the BAFTAs, putting her solidly in first place.

The best predictor of this category is the SAG award, and Mahershala Ali’s win there is the main factor putting him in first. But some people are talking about this category as if it’s a lock, and that’s not the case. Ali lost the Golden Globe and BAFTA, opening the door for BAFTA champion Dev Patel to pull off an upset. Remember, Mark Rylance lost the SAG last year before winning an Oscar, so this race isn’t quite over.

This race, on the other hand, is all but over. Viola Davis won just about everything she could for her moving performance in Fences, and the math suggests that any other result would be a stunner.

This is the best race of the night. La La Land’s script won the Golden Globe, where it had to compete against some of the season’s adapted screenplays, since the Globes only have one writing category. Manchester by the Sea took the BAFTA and the majority of critics’ honors. Normally, we’d look to the Writers Guild to break the tie, but they handed the original screenplay trophy to Moonlight, which the Oscars categorized as adapted. Thus, we’re essentially still left with a tie, and the math gives Manchester the tiniest of leads.

Moonlight is clearly in front, with victories from the USC Scripter Awards (which have picked the last six in a row) and the Writers Guild (in the original screenplay category). But when Moonlight wasn’t in the running, other nominees made their cases: Lion won the BAFTA and Arrival took the Writers Guild, neither having to go up against Moonlight. Now that they’re all in the same category, Barry Jenkins’ powerful screenplay has the inside track.

Tomorrow: Part II looks at animated feature, foreign film and more.

Ben Zauzmer (@BensOscarMath) uses math to predict and write about the Oscars for The Hollywood Reporter. He recently graduated from Harvard with a degree in applied math, and he now works as a baseball analyst for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

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