Oscars: The Math Points to a 'Roma' Best Picture Win, but It's Not Guaranteed

6:15 AM 2/20/2019

by Ben Zauzmer

Glenn Close and Rami Malek are the mathematical favorites in the top acting categories.

Biz Screen -Roma - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Netflix

The 91st Oscars won’t be handed out until Sunday, but Roma has already made history. With a 32.6 percent chance to win best picture, it sets a new record: No foreign-language film has ever had a higher chance of winning the top award on Oscar night.

How do I know this? With a little help from math. Every year, I predict the Oscars using nothing but data and statistics — no personal hunches or opinions involved. My model considers which categories a film is nominated in, other awards shows, and betting markets, weighting each of these factors by how well it has predicted each Oscar category in past years.

By that model, the previous record-holder for the most likely foreign-language best picture winner was Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), which had a 26.3 percent chance, good for second place behind Gladiator’s 50.5 percent (Gladiator went on to win the award).

But when it comes to this year’s nominees, these are definitely percentages, not guarantees — especially since this year, no best picture frontrunner emerged as the various guilds all chose different films as the year’s best. Some years, the mathematical favorites win their categories — last year, 20 of the 21 nominees that my model pegged proved victorious. But other years see more upsets. And we’re just a few days from finding out what kind of a year 2019 will be.

Coming tomorrow: Animated Feature, Documentary Feature, Foreign Language Film, Production Design, Cinematography, Original Score, Original Song.

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

  • Best Picture

    This is one of the toughest years to predict best picture in recent memory. The Golden Globes split their honors between Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book. The Producers Guild followed suit with a Green Book victory, only to see the Screen Actors Guild deliver its best cast award to Black Panther.

    Only BlacKkKlansman, The Favourite and Vice picked up all three of the crucial Oscar nominations for best director, screenplay and film editing.

    But then at the last minute, Roma earned major honors from the Directors Guild and BAFTAs — good enough to vault into first place, but not good enough to approach 50 percent. So there’s actually a better chance that Roma loses than wins, but it’s still the most likely winner among the eight contenders.

  • Best Director

    Still more records could fall for Roma: Prior to this year, there have been 30 foreign-language films whose director has been nominated for best director, and all 30 lost. Alfonso Cuaron, already an Oscar champion as best director for Gravity, has a 65 percent chance to become the first such director Sunday. He has the Directors Guild, BAFTA and Critics Choice honors to back him up.

    But Spike Lee received nominations from all three of those groups for BlacKkKlansman, and Yorgos Lanthimos’ film The Favourite tied Roma for the most nominations with 10. Both reached double-digit percentages, and are nearly tied for the status of most likely winner should Cuaron be upset.


  • Best Actor

    A painter, a driver, a politician and a couple of musicians walk into the Oscars. But the math says that just two of them combine for over a 90 percent chance to win.

    The politician, Vice President Dick Cheney as portrayed by a heavily made-up Christian Bale, won the Critics Choice Award and the Golden Globe for best actor in a comedy/musical. But one of those two musicians, Queen frontman Freddie Mercury as embodied by Rami Malek, cleaned up down the stretch of awards season. Malek took the other Golden Globe, the Screen Actors Guild and the BAFTA, and suddenly a close race doesn’t look quite so close any more.

  • Best Actress

    People often like to say that their favorite actor or actress is due to win an Oscar. But not since Peter O’Toole’s eighth and final nomination for Venus (2006) has that statement been so true. Glenn Close leads all living actors for the title of most nominations (seven) without a win. I’ll admit I’m still scratching my head over how she didn’t win for Fatal Attraction (1987).

    Close is the mathematical favorite to finally stand on that stage thanks to Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe wins. But she tied Lady Gaga (A Star Is Born) at the Critics Choice Awards and lost to Olivia Colman (The Favourite) at the BAFTAs, so neither of those competitors can safely be ruled out.

  • Best Supporting Actor

    Mahershala Ali not only has the best odds to win Best Supporting Actor for his piano-playing role in Green Book, he also has the highest percentage chance of any nominee in any category. That’s what happens when you win nearly all the major awards in Hollywood and beyond.

    The math isn’t very confident as to the ordering of Ali’s four competitors, as none of them won enough precursors to distinguish himself from the others. Short of a major upset, the winner two years ago for Moonlight is set to become the eighth multi-time champion for best supporting actor.

  • Best Supporting Actress

    Marcia Gay Harden (Pollock) in 2000 remains the only Oscar winner for best supporting actress without a Screen Actors Guild nomination. So how could the math favor another actress left off the SAG list, Regina King from If Beale Street Could Talk?

    The answer is that King did enough at the other awards shows to move into first place, winning the Critics Choice and Golden Globe Awards. She was greatly helped by Emily Blunt’s Screen Actors Guild win for A Quiet Place, as Blunt wasn’t nominated by the Academy. But King’s lead is nowhere near as secure as Mahershala Ali’s. BAFTA winner Rachel Weisz (The Favourite) also makes a strong case entering Oscar Sunday.

  • Best Original Screenplay

    The Favourite is indeed the favorite, but it took a winding path to get here. First Reformed won the Critics Choice Award, Green Book won the Golden Globe and The Favourite was ruled ineligible at the Writers Guild Awards. With only a BAFTA win to its name, The Favourite seemed doomed to fall into second-place status behind whichever film won the Writers Guild prize.

    Then lightning struck. For only the second time since the WGA adopted its modern format, the guild honored an original screenplay (Eighth Grade) that wasn’t nominated by the Oscars (the other was Bowling for Columbine). And so The Favourite narrowly hangs on to its frontrunner status.


  • Best Adapted Screenplay

    It’s dangerous to bet against the Writers Guild once, let alone twice, yet that’s exactly what the model is doing this year. The last time neither Writers Guild winner won a screenplay Oscar was 2002, when The Hours and Bowling for Columbine took the WGA trophies but Talk to Her and The Pianist won the Oscars.

    This year could be a repeat. Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the Writers Guild winner, would be just the fourth adapted screenplay winner without a best picture nomination, and the other three occurred in years with only five best picture nominees: The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Sling Blade (1996), and Gods and Monsters (1998). So the math is sticking with a Best Picture nominee, BlacKkKlansman, which claimed the BAFTA honor for screenplay.