Oscars: Predicting the Nominees With the Help of a Little Math

5:00 AM 1/22/2018

by Ben Zauzmer

Calculating the probabilities that each possible nominee will be selected by the Oscars in advance of the nominations announcement.

Oscar Statuettes - Getty - H 2017
Tim Boyle/Getty

Oscar Statuettes - Getty - H 2017

With Oscar nominations due to be unveiled Jan. 23, there are lots of predictions floating around.

"She's definitely getting a nomination." "He's a real long shot to hear his name called."

We hear these things all the time, but to really know precisely how definite or long-shot a nomination is, it's helpful to use math. Every year, I calculate the probabilities that each possible nominee will be selected by the Oscars in advance of the nominations announcement.

The method is straightforward: I ask my computer to determine how well various guild awards and critic groups have predicted the Oscar nominees in the past, and then assign credit to the recipients of those awards during the present Oscar season. The better an awards show has historically done at predicting a given category, the more weight that awards show is assigned.

Not only do the percentages below tell us the likelihood of each film, director, actor, or actress getting nominated, but they also serve as approximate standings for the current state of each race, because a more likely nominee is also a more likely winner. Of course, those standings have plenty of time to change between now and March 4, when the Oscars will be handed out. 

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

    Since 2009, when the Academy expanded the best picture category, all 40 films nominated by the Directors Guild went on to receive best picture nominations. The math sees no end in sight to that trend, with all five Directors Guild contenders – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Get Out, The Shape of Water, Lady Bird, and Dunkirk – enjoying at least a 98 percent chance of a nomination.

    Nearly as strong, Call Me by Your Name and The Post both have about a 9-in-10 chance of getting a nomination. Both received Golden Globe nominations for best drama, Producers Guild nominations, Critics Choice nominations for best picture, and a slew of critic honors. The Post lost a lot of its best picture momentum when it was shut out by the BAFTA nominations, but it still has a strong enough resume for seventh place.

    Next up is The Big Sick, hoping to parlay its Screen Actors Guild nomination for best ensemble, among other awards, into a best picture nod. It's followed by a number of films that are right on the borderline, the movies that are fervently hoping the category nominates a large number of films this year. Darkest Hour, I, Tonya, The Florida Project, Mudbound, Wonder Woman, and Molly's Game haven't done quite enough to launch them into favorite status, but they've all won enough to remain in the conversation. Plenty of other films have an outside chance as well, but none reached the 10 percent threshold in my model.

  • Best Director

    Unsurprisingly, the five Directors Guild nominees again comprise the top of the chart. But that doesn't mean there's no hope for directors not named Guillermo del Toro, Greta Gerwig, Martin McDonagh, Christopher Nolan or Jordan Peele. There have only been five years in which the Directors Guild and the Oscar for Best Director nominated the exact same films:

    -- 1977 (Woody Allen won for Annie Hall)

    -- 1981 (Warren Beatty won for Reds)

    -- 1998 (Steven Spielberg won for Saving Private Ryan)

    -- 2005 (Ang Lee won for Brokeback Mountain)

    -- 2009 (Katharine Bigelow won for The Hurt Locker)

    If this year doesn't join that list, the strongest contenders to join this year's Oscar club are Golden Globe nominee Steven Spielberg (The Post) and BAFTA nominee Luca Guadagnino (Call Me by Your Name).

  • Best Actor

    The math strongly favors Golden Globe champions Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour) and James Franco (The Disaster Artist), though the model is unaware of the recent controversy surrounding Franco, since that news came into the spotlight only after most critic groups had already voted.

    Aside from Oldman's portrayal of Winston Churchill, only two other performances were nominated for a Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild, and BAFTA award: Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) and Timothee Chalamet (Call Me by Your Name), launching them into third and fourth place, respectively.

    Though he missed out on a SAG nomination, Daniel Day-Lewis (Phantom Thread) received enough other honors to come in fifth, hoping to extend his own record for most best actor trophies in history.

    Rounding out the list, Tom Hanks (The Post), Denzel Washington (Roman J. Israel, Esq.), and Jake Gyllenhaal (Stronger) didn't quite make a clean sweep of the first half of awards season, but did enough to put themselves on the verge of contention if one of the top five falls out of favor.

  • Best Actress

    Four women have dominated the best actress discussion and nominee lists so far: Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird), Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water), and to a slightly lesser extent, Margot Robbie (I, Tonya). All four, especially the first three, appear to be in very good shape heading into the Oscar announcement.

    But that means there's room for one more, and it's anyone's guess who that could be. The math favors Meryl Streep (The Post) thanks to recognition including Golden Globe and Critics Choice nominations, but don't count out SAG nominee Judi Dench (Victoria & Abdul) or Molly's Game star Jessica Chastain.

  • Best Supporting Actor

    You can go ahead and pencil in Golden Globe winner Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). The only other actor to go three-for-three with nominations from the Golden Globes, SAGs, and BAFTAs was Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project), making him the only other contender above 90 percent.

    Richard Jenkins, who received nominations from the first two of those three aforementioned bodies for his role in The Shape of Water, is a strong third place at 89 percent.

    A couple of movies have a chance to become the 18th movie, and first since Bugsy (1991), to grab multiple best supporting actor nominations. One is Three Billboards, and the math likes Woody Harrelson's odds to join co-star Sam Rockwell. The other is Call Me by Your Name, with Michael Stuhlbarg and especially Armie Hammer having decent chances at good news from the Academy.

    Steve Carrell's performance in Battle of the Sexes didn't receive quite as many kudos on the critics circle circuit, but made up for it with Golden Globe and SAG nominations for a 42 percent chance.

  • Best Supporting Actress

    Allison Janney (I, Tonya) and Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird) appear to be headed for a thrilling two-way race, as the only actresses with nominations from the Golden Globes, SAGs, and BAFTAs.

    Mary J. Blige (Mudbound), Hong Chau (Downsizing), and Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water) each got nominations from two of those three groups. Along with Holly Hunter (The Big Sick), the third, fourth and fifth nominees will probably come from this group of four.

    But if we get into upset territory, there's less than a ten percent shot that Tiffany Haddish (Girls Trip), Lesley Manville (Phantom Thread) or Kirsten Scott Thomas (Darkest Hour) could try and play spoiler.

  • Best Original Screenplay

    The top four are The Shape of Water, Lady Bird, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and Get Out, but the order of those four could shift constantly as various groups convey their writing awards over the next month.

    On the bubble for the fifth spot are Writers Guild nominees I, Tonya and The Big Sick. Joining them in nervous anticipation is Golden Globe and Critics Choice nominee The Post. Unless there's a significant upset, one of these three will make the cut, and the others will be left at home.

  • Best Adapted Screenplay

    Like the other screenplay honor, there's a pretty clear top four here, with Molly's Game, Call Me by Your Name, The Disaster Artist, and Mudbound all accruing enough nominations to make them likely bets for Oscar nominations. But the Academy has a fifth invitation to hand out, and that's where it gets interesting.

    The math leans towards the fifth Writers Guild nominee, Logan, but not far behind are USC Scripter nominees Wonder Woman and The Lost City of Z. And within ten percent of that pair are BAFTA nominees Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool, The Death of Stalin, and Paddington 2. Even Critics Choice nominee Wonder sneaks in above the ten percent threshold. Though the winner of the race for the fifth adapted screenplay slot is unlikely to win the Oscar, just a nomination is an honor that they're all anxiously anticipating.

    That's it for the top eight categories. Now that we know all the chances of scoring a nomination, all that's left for us to do is wait. And all that's left for the contenders to do is hope.