Oscars: The Math Predicts a 'Dunkirk' Film Editing Win

7:05 AM 3/2/2018

by Ben Zauzmer

'Phantom Thread' and 'Darkest Hour' are the mathematical favorites for costume design and makeup and hairstyling, respectively.

'Dunkirk'
'Dunkirk'
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

When I published part one of my seventh annual mathematical Oscar predictions, I imagine I disappointed some Dunkirk fans when my statistical model placed Christopher Nolan’s film in fourth place in the best picture race. But for those of you who made it all the way through part two of the predictions, and on to this third and final part, your patience is finally rewarded. Dunkirk is predicted to win three of these final six awards.

But none of those wins will come easy. Only one is above a 50 percent chance to occur, and across all six of these categories, only two reach that 50 percent threshold. So while some more casual Oscar fans might use the craft categories to look away from the screen for a moment, the true fans know that these categories often provide some of the most exciting races, which is as true as ever this year.

The first part of my Oscar predictions, covering the top categories, can be found here. The second part, predicting documentary, animation and foreign-language feature, among other categories, is here.

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.

  • Film Editing

    This is a great example of a category where having a mathematical model comes in handy. The BAFTAs chose Baby Driver. The Eddies picked Dunkirk for drama and I, Tonya for comedy. The Critics' Choice Awards announced their first-ever tie in this category, awarding both Baby Driver and Dunkirk. A majority of critics groups split their honors between those two films. Looking at the historical data, the math opts for Dunkirk. Why? The Eddie drama category has picked 14 winners over the past two decades, compared to just 8 for the BAFTAs. Those conflicting awards don’t cancel out: they come out in favor of Eddie winner Dunkirk.

  • Visual Effects

    Like best film editing, this is another category where the BAFTA winner (Blade Runner 2049) and the guild winner (War for the Planet of the Apes, chosen by the Visual Effects Society) disagree. But this time, the math makes the opposite decision and sticks with the British Academy. Since the VES Society began handing out awards 15 years ago, the BAFTAs have out-predicted them 12-10. It’s a small difference, and that’s reflected in the small gap in the standings between first and second. There are a number of other visual effects awards my model factors in, and they roughly cancel out between the top two contenders. Apes is a very popular pick in this category, so if you’re looking to differentiate yourself from your Oscar pool competitors, consider Blade Runner 2049 for visual effects.

  • Costume Design

    Phantom Thread could just as easily have been titled Costume Design: The Movie. So it’s no wonder that nearly everyone is rushing to predict that Mark Bridges wins his second Oscar (he also won for The Artist). But not so fast: While Phantom Thread did win the BAFTAs and Critics' Choice Awards, which is enough to put it in first place, it lost its Costume Designers Guild Award category to The Shape of Water. What’s more, Phantom Thread and Victoria & Abdul are the only two nominees without a best production design nomination. In the last 22 years, only two films have won for costumes without being nominated for production design: Marie Antoinette (2006) and Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007). The numbers show that this race is a lot closer than people realize.

  • Makeup and Hairstyling

    This one isn’t quite as close. While the makeup in all three of these films was well deserving of a nomination, Darkest Hour somehow transformed Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill, and did it so well that I could scarcely believe I wasn’t watching documentary footage of the actual Prime Minister. While there aren’t many awards for makeup and hairstyling in the lead-up to the Oscars, those that do exist were nearly unanimous in favor of Darkest Hour, giving it a clear lead heading down the stretch.

  • Sound Editing

    Before Dunkirk’s sound mixers could do their magic, someone else had to create all of those sounds of war. Though the BAFTA best sound category does a better job of mirroring the Oscar for best sound mixing than for sound editing, it is still a reasonably good predictor for best sound editing, since the two are so closely related (after all, the exact same five films were nominated in both categories for the first time ever this year). That’s why the standings are nearly identical in the two sound categories. But the Motion Picture Sound Editors opted for Blade Runner 2049, and in general this category has fewer reliable predictors than any other, so Dunkirk’s win is no sure thing.

    There actually are three categories with fewer precursors than best sound editing: the three short film awards. As a matter of fact, there are so few pre-Oscar honors for shorts that these Academy Awards can’t be predicted mathematically. Betting markets currently favor DeKalb Elementary for live-action short, Dear Basketball for animated short, and Edith+Eddie for documentary short, so if you’re filling out an Oscar pool, those might be your best bets.

  • Sound Mixing

    Sound mixing tends to be the easier of the two sound categories to predict, largely because the precursor awards for best sound (such as the BAFTAs and the Satellite Awards) tend to be more closely aligned with sound mixing than sound editing. This year, both of them opted for Dunkirk, as did the Cinema Audio Society. Due to thousands of sounds of war all blending into one two-hour film, Dunkirk leads this race in the final week.

    I’ve done my part: now you know all the mathematical favorites to win the Oscars. Now it’s time for your part: take your best guesses, grab some popcorn, and enjoy the 90th edition of cinema’s most exciting awards show.

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