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Editor’s note: Ben Zauzmer (@BensOscarMath) is a big fan of the Oscars, as well as an applied math major at Harvard. For the past two years, he has predicted the Oscars using nothing but math, calling 75 percent in 2012 and 81 percent in 2013. This year, he’s teaming up with The Hollywood Reporter to bring you his Oscar predictions, as well as weekly updates, combining numbers and movies in the weeks leading up to the Academy Awards. Ben’s predictions are purely math-based; see THR’s Feinberg Forecast for a look at the Oscar race that takes into account other factors.
Now that the Screen Actors Guild Awards are behind us, does American Hustle have the best picture Oscar all wrapped up? How about actor and actress favorites Matthew McConaughey and Cate Blanchett?
The answer is that all three have taken the lead, but none is guaranteed to win on Oscar night.
The Producers Guild of America complicated the race in the form of a tie between 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, but both films still trail Hustle.
Factoring in the results of both SAG and the PGA, here is my latest prediction for best picture.
THE BEST PICTURE RACE
But let’s examine the mathematical significance of the SAG Awards a bit more deeply. The best way to do this is to isolate the SAG variable by holding everything else equal — in other words, ignore all non-SAG Oscar indicators and then recalculate the standings.
That is just what I have done in the following chart using historical data. To take the first row, Best Cast, as an example, the chart says that the movie that wins best cast at the SAG Awards has a 52.1 percent chance of winning the corresponding Oscar for best picture. I then list each of this year’s Oscar nominees in their respective categories. For instance, the middle box names the five actors who earned SAG nominations but did not win the SAG Award. They each have a 9.7 percent chance of winning best actor/actress at the Oscars, all else being equal.
THE EFFECT OF SAG WINS, NOMS AND SNUBS ON OSCAR NOMS
The four acting awards at the SAGs are better Oscar predictors than the best cast award, and there are three ways to see this. First, looking at the first column of the above chart, SAG acting winners have a higher Oscar win probability than the SAG best cast winner. Second, 50 percent of best cast winners take home best picture, but 66 percent of SAG acting winners claim the Oscar. (The best track record among the four acting awards is best actor — interestingly, its only four misses occurred all in a row, from 2000 to 2003.) Third, from a more qualitative perspective, the qualifications for best cast are a bit different from those for best picture, since the Oscars take into account more than just acting quality. Therefore, a small-cast film like Gravity should not necessarily be too concerned about its lack of a SAG nomination, since no film has ever been nominated for best cast with only two main actors (Million Dollar Baby holds the record with only three actors credited by SAG).
Granted, the standard of holding everything else equal is useful for analyzing the SAGs, but it is not the best way to predict the Oscars. When we include other variables, it is important to note that McConaughey, Blanchett, and Leto have the additional benefit of winning Golden Globes for best actor in a drama or best supporting actor. Lupito Nyong’o, on the other hand, lost the Golden Globe for best supporting actress to Jennifer Lawrence, setting theirs up as the closest race among the four acting categories at the Oscars. Lauren Bacall (The Mirror Has Two Faces, 1996), Russell Crowe (A Beautiful Mind, 2001), Eddie Murphy (Dreamgirls, 2006), and Julie Christie (Away From Her, 2007) are the only four people — as it happens, one in each acting category — to win both a SAG and a Golden Globe for best actor/actress in a drama or supporting actor/actress only to lose the Oscar.
The only other movie award at the SAGs is best stunt ensemble, a relative newcomer in its seventh year, and it is not a major Oscar predictor. This year, the award went to Lone Survivor, which received Oscar nominations only in the two sound categories.
Here are the current standings in the four acting races:
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Hot on the heels of the SAG Awards, the Producers Guild of America gave out three film awards as well, the most prominent being its best picture award. Using a similar method to the above chart for the SAGs, the PGA winners (this year, an unprecedented tie) have a 30 percent chance of winning an Oscar; the films that were nominated only for the PGA award have a 6 percent chance of earning best picture; and a movie that does not even get nominated by PGA (this year, Philomena) has a mere 2 percent chance of claiming the top prize on March 2.
Overall, the PGAs have picked 71 percent of best picture winners since their 1989 founding. Impressively, the PGA is on a six-year winning streak, not having made an incorrect pick since Little Miss Sunshine in 2006 (The Departed won the Oscar that year). That streak is a good sign for both 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, though this year is off to a stranger start than most when it comes to best picture.
This year, the PGA’s award for best animated feature went to Frozen, but that is only a moderate boost for Disney’s latest masterpiece. The PGA picked only five Oscar winners in the first eight years in this category, including two consecutive misses with 2011’s The Adventures of Tintin and 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph. Over that same eight-year stretch, a plethora of groups have better track records for picking animated Oscar winners, including the BAFTAs, the Visual Effects Society, and many critics circles.
The PGA also gives an award for best documentary, but it is not a useful Oscar predictor. Not only does this category only go back seven years, but for the second time (the other being 2011), there was a not a single overlap between the PGA and Oscar nominees.
Looking back at both the SAG Awards and the PGA Awards, just one movie has won the best picture Oscar without being nominated for the SAG Award for best cast, and only one movie has won best picture without being nominated for the PGA Award for best picture. As it turns out, it’s the same movie: Braveheart. Every PGA winner has at least been nominated for best picture, and The Birdcage is the only SAG champion to not earn a best picture nomination. The only year that the SAGs and Oscars nominated the exact same list of films was 2001, and that is now impossible since the Oscars have expanded the best picture category. The PGAs matched the Oscar list perfectly in its first three years of honoring five films, 1992 to 1994, but have surprisingly failed to repeat the feat since.
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