Oscar Math: 'Spotlight' Currently Leads the Pack — But Just Barely

'Spotlight,' Courtesy of Kerry Hayes/Open Road Films

With the Oscars just two weeks away, here's how the sure things and the long shorts stack up in the eight top categories.

Oscar balloting has finally begun. Just last weekend, the Directors Guild of America awarded its outstanding feature director award to The Revenant’s Alejandro G. Inarritu. So, as the Academy Awards race enters its final and critical phase, The Revenant is positioned to win the big award. Or is it?

There’s a long-held belief that the DGA basically foretells the Oscar in the top two categories. But while that has been the case more often than not, it wasn’t true when Argo’s Ben Affleck took the DGA prize in 2013 — the directing Oscar went instead to Life of Pi’s Ang Lee, although Argo did claim best picture. And while 2013 DGA winner Alfonso Cuaron won that year’s best directing Oscar for Gravity, best picture honors went to 12 Years a Slave. So, a more nuanced view of the DGA Award’s significance is that The Revenant is definitely going to win … unless it doesn’t.

But let’s put some percentages on it, shall we? For the past five years, I have predicted the Oscars using nothing but data and statistics. I take lots of information from previous Oscar years — such as results from other award shows, which categories a film was nominated in and more — and I use math to determine the relative importance of each predictor.

This year, for the first time, I am releasing early standings in the eight most prominent categories. These are most certainly subject to change by the time the Oscars roll around, most notably due to this weekend’s BAFTA and Writers Guild Awards. So don’t fill out your Oscar pool ballot quite yet (okay, you can go ahead and pencil in Leonardo DiCaprio), but here’s a snapshot of the state of the race with just two more weeks to go.

Wait, what? The Directors Guild winner — the film that also received the most nominations — doesn’t have a lead heading into the BAFTAs? How can this be? The answer lies in what The Revenant doesn’t have: a Screen Actors Guild best cast nomination, a SAG best cast win, a screenplay nomination and a Writers Guild nomination. Spotlight has all four of those. The last film to win best picture without a screenplay or WGA nomination, since the WGA Awards began in 1949: none. It’s never happened. The Revenant is trying to be the first, and that’s why it’s not quite in first place.

The only other film with a legitimate shot is The Big Short, thanks in large part to its PGA victory. Every other film on the list has holes in its Oscar résumé large enough that even a BAFTA win wouldn’t put it over the top.

The universe is back to normal and the DGA winner is the favorite. And as per usual, it’s not even close. That’s what happens when you’re honored by a body that hardly ever misses. Only two films — The Lion in Winter (1968) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) — won the DGA award, received both picture and director nominations, yet lost both of the top two categories. Don’t count on The Revenant to be the third.

I expect there will be quite a few people predicting an upset for George Miller in the coming weeks. They may argue that the unique directorial challenges in an innovative film like Mad Max: Fury Road deserve to be honored, or that the Academy will hesitate to hand this category to the same filmmaker two years in a row for the first time since Joseph Mankiewicz won it in 1949 and 1950. And they may very well be right. After all, the math says nine percent for Miller, not zero percent. But keep in mind that it would indeed be an upset. No matter what happens at the BAFTAs, Inarritu is the Oscar favorite.

Often when I release percentages above 80 percent in any category, I receive notes in the comments section that my math is overconfident. This, however, is one of those rare circumstances when I expect to receive comments that 88.0 percent isn’t high enough. That’s how sure people are that The Revenant's Leonardo DiCaprio is going to finally win that Oscar he so rightfully deserves.

And you know what? In this case, that gut feeling is right. While 88.0 percent is pretty darn high, it might get even higher. The only thing preventing DiCaprio from breaking 90 percent — a rare feat in all the years I’ve done this — is that he hasn’t yet won a BAFTA award. If he can add that feather to his cap, he’ll walk into Oscar Sunday with a historically commanding lead.

With all the talk about DiCaprio’s obvious victory, Room’s Brie Larson may be getting a little slighted. But fortunately, the math hasn’t missed the fact that she won a Golden Globe for best actress in a drama as well as a SAG award. She also has a BAFTA nomination to her name. Those are the same three factors driving DiCaprio’s huge lead, so there’s no reason Larson shouldn’t enjoy the same mathematical advantage as well.

Supporting actor is easily one of the most fascinating races this year. The Screen Actors Guild, normally the best predictor, essentially took itself out of the running by choosing Idris Elba for Beasts of No Nation, even though Elba controversially went un-nominated by the Academy. As a matter of fact, Elba was the first SAG winner in any acting category to go unrecognized by the Oscar nominations.

So where does that leave us? The next best predictor is a Golden Globe victory, and that’s what puts Creed’s Sylvester Stallone in first place. But Stallone didn’t receive a SAG nomination, so his lead is nowhere near as impressive as the margins in the two lead actor categories. Instead, he sits below 50 percent, while three of his competitors are above 10 percent. This one is still anyone’s Oscar.

The Danish Girl actress Alicia Vikander’s Oscar résumé is neither as dominant as DiCaprio’s and Larson’s nor as spotty as Stallone’s, and her 60.1 percent chance reflects that. She did get all of the key nominations — SAG, BAFTA, Golden Globe and Critics Choice — but thus far, she has only won two of those, with the BAFTA still be to be decided. Steve Jobs’ Kate Winslet beat her out for the Golden Globe, knocking Vikander down from “obvious frontrunner” to mere “frontrunner” status.

And now we arrive at the ever-fascinating and frustrating screenplay categories. There are no other categories at the Oscars whose primary predictor has such deviating qualifications. I’m talking about the Writers Guild, which deems a number of contenders ineligible each year because they were not written under guild contracts. This year, Inside Out, Ex Machina, Brooklyn and Room all fell victim. I do account for this in my formula, but it still causes the otherwise-telling WGA race to be a little misleading.

The math suggests it’s not going to matter in the original screenplay category. While no one received a Golden Globe win — that went to Steve Jobs, which did not receive an Oscar nom — at least Spotlight has a Critics Choice victory and a best director nomination. Those are not top predictors, but in the absence of much else for its competitors, Spotlight is clearly in first place heading into the WGAs and BAFTAs.

This looks like a two-horse race, with The Big Short currently ahead of Room. Both are hoping for a BAFTA boost, while only The Big Short is in the hunt for a WGA win. Here’s the situation: If The Big Short gets the WGA nod tonight, it will have the lead going into the Oscars regardless of what transpires in London. But failing that, there is a path for Room to surge into first place at the BAFTAs.

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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