Oscars: The Math Predicts a 'The Shape of Water' Best Picture Win

7:30 AM 2/28/2018

by Ben Zauzmer

Gary Oldman and Frances McDormand are the mathematical favorites in the top acting categories.

The Shape of Water BTS - Publicity - Embed 2018
Courtesy of Kerry Hayes/Twentieth Century Fox

The film’s stars, Richard Jenkins and Sally Hawkins. 

At times, pinning down a true frontrunner this Oscar season has felt as elusive as measuring the shape of water itself.

On Nov. 30, Lady Bird won the New York Film Critics Circle, and some declared it to be in the lead. Just three days later, Call Me by Your Name won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and suddenly that was the film to beat. And so it went for a month, with Dunkirk and Get Out also taking brief turns as presumptive frontrunners.

The new year began, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri dominated the Golden Globes. So then that movie was in pole position. But a couple weeks later, the Academy delivered 13 nominations to The Shape of Water, sending prognosticators in yet another direction. Guillermo del Toro’s film took top honors at the Directors Guild. Three Billboards struck back at the BAFTAs. What do we do?

This is where math comes in. For the past seven years, I have predicted the Oscars using nothing but data and statistics. My method involves determining which factors – such as prior awards shows, which categories a film is nominated in, critic scores, and betting markets – have historically done the best job of predicting each Oscar category. The factors that are more predictive get more heavily weighted when calculating which of this year’s contenders are more likely to come out on top.

Today, my 2018 mathematical Oscar predictions begin with the top eight categories. I'll cover the percentages for best documentary and six other categories in Part 2 of this article tomorrow, and the remaining categories will appear in Part 3 on Friday.

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.


  • Best Picture

    By my model, this is the closest best picture race in at least two decades. Three Billboards' ensemble cast won the SAG Award, while The Shape of Water wasn’t even nominated, which no best picture winner has overcome since Braveheart (1995). Martin McDonagh’s film also claimed top prizes from the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs, though the latter organization has missed the last three best pictures winners.

    The Shape of Water stakes its claim on victories at the Producers Guild Awards and the Directors Guild Awards. The difference-maker, however, is not only the precursor awards but the Academy itself. By giving Shape of Water 13 nominations, one shy of the all-time record, and neglecting to give Three Billboards a best director nomination, the Oscars nominations give The Shape of Water a slight edge.

    Only four films have ever won best picture without a best director nomination: Wings (1927), Grand Hotel (1932), Driving Miss Daisy (1989), and Argo (2012), so that’s a serious knock on Three Billboards’ resume. Then again, there has been a noticeable separation of these formerly closely-knit categories, with four of the last five years seeing a picture/director split – all but 2014, when Birdman swept both.

    If that happens again this year, look for The Shape of Water to win best director but Three Billboards to claim the top prize. And if there’s a true upset for best picture, the next most likely tier is comprised of Lady Bird, Dunkirk, and Get Out, all sandwiched between seven percent and eight percent to win.

  • Best Director

    Unlike best picture, best director is an easier call this year. Guillermo del Toro claimed directing honors from the Directors Guild, BAFTAs, Golden Globes, and a host of other organizations. Only two directors have ever won those three awards but failed to win the Oscar: Ang Lee, for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and Ben Affleck, who wasn’t even nominated by the Oscars for Argo (2012). As a result, the math gives del Toro a better chance to win for The Shape of Water than every other director combined.

  • Best Actor

    This is the first time in history that the SAG Awards, BAFTAs, Golden Globes, and Critics Choice Awards all picked the same winner in all four acting categories. In other words, don’t overthink the acting categories this year when filling out your Oscar pool. Sure, there could be an upset – Gary Oldman’s percentage chance to win is less than 100 percent, after all. And all my model is really doing is mathematically calculating the chance each nominee will win, not guaranteeing anything. Sometimes, events with small probabilities do occur. But in all likelihood, Winston Churchill is going to declare victory.

  • Best Actress

    Saoirse Ronan picked up the Golden Globe for lead actress in a comedy/musical, leading some observers to predict a tight two-way race to the finish line between her and Frances McDormand. Then, the Three Billboards star rattled off consecutive victories at the Critics Choice Awards, SAG Awards, and BAFTAs, all but sealing a win for the toughest propagandist in Ebbing, Missouri.


  • Best Supporting Actor

    Frances McDormand’s likely victory probably isn’t the only acting honor that Three Billboards is going to come home with. Between Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson, the film has a combined 79.8 percent chance to win best supporting actor, with the hefty majority of that share belonging to Rockwell. Only five films have won both best actress and best supporting actor: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Hud (1963), Cabaret (1972), Terms of Endearment (1983), and Million Dollar Baby (2004). The math favors Three Billboards to become film #6 on that list.


  • Best Supporting Actress

    Here is the complete list of people in all four acting categories who have won the SAG Awards, BAFTAs, Golden Globes, and Critics Choice Awards but lost the Oscar: Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind (2001). That’s it. So the fact that I, Tonya’s mother Allison Janney went 4/4 from that group – as did Oldman, McDormand, and Rockwell – is a really strong sign. This category is Janney’s to lose.

  • Best Original Screenplay

    Aside from best picture, this is the most exciting race among the headliner categories. Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards screenplay won over voters from the Golden Globes (where Get Out wasn’t even nominated) and the BAFTAs. But Jordan Peele’s Get Out script received trophies from the Critics Choice Awards and, more importantly, the Writers Guild (though McDonagh was ineligible there, so my model doesn’t give Peele quite as much credit for this win).

    A couple other factors nudge the math towards Peele’s favor: First, he won the lion’s share of this season’s critics screenplay awards, including Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, and Washington, among many others.

    Second, Peele’s film earned a best director nomination, unlike his closest competitor. Though the categories of best director and best original screenplay might seem rather distinct, in Oscar history 36 percent of best-screenplay-and-best-director nominees win their screenplay nominations, but only eight percent of screenplay nominees without a best director nomination go on to win. Presumably, this is due to Academy voters lining up behind their favorite films in multiple categories.

  • Best Adapted Screenplay

    The other screenplay category is easier to predict this year. USC’s Scripter Awards are on an impressive run, having picked seven adapted screenplay champions in a row (last miss: Up in the Air over Precious), and they’re looking to make it eight with James Ivory’s Call Me by Your Name. Add in Writers Guild and BAFTA wins, and there’s a good chance Ivory becomes the oldest Oscar winner in history.

    Though even if he does win, he might not receive that title. Agnes Varda, director of best documentary nominee Faces Places, was born eight days earlier in 1928. So if both of them win, then Ivory will only get to claim he was briefly the oldest winner in history if his category happens to come up before hers.