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Editor’s Note: Ben Zauzmer (@BensOscarMath) is a big fan of the Oscars, as well 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, which are purely based on math. See THR’s Feinberg Forecast for a look at the Oscar race that takes into account other factors).
As the final countdown until the March 2 Oscar ceremony begins, Gravity is still holding on to a lead as the most probable best picture winner, while Matthew McConaughey and Cate Blanchett are cruising toward wins in the best acting categories.
Time now to calculate the probable outcomes, category by category. To explain my methodology, I calculate all of these standings using only math; no personal preferences or hunches are involved. I use data from previous years such as other awards shows, other nomination categories and critic’s scores to determine the relative weights of each factor for each Oscar category.
While it is certainly fun to use these numbers to predict the Oscars, be warned that events with lower probabilities do often take place in real life. For instance, Gravity leads the way in the best picture race at 48 percent, but that means there is a 52 percent chance Gravity loses. So, the frontrunner for best picture is still more likely to lose than to win!
Consider these standings, then, as a fun way to track the horse race, not a foolproof guide to winning your Oscar pool (though it could certainly help in that endeavor). After all, if the Oscars were perfectly predictable with math, the suspense would be gone and the ceremony wouldn’t be exciting anymore. But the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is just that — a combination of art and science.
Gravity? Really? And 12 Years a Slave in third?
While these percentages will surprise many people, there’s a reason why the math says Gravity. Throughout Oscar history, the DGA Award has been simply the best predictor of best picture, and Gravity won the DGA Award, giving it a huge bump in the mathematical model. It’s very possible that the DGA Award indicates that Gravity will only win best director (those two categories usually correlate, but last year they went to different films), and that would leave the door open for American Hustle or 12 Years a Slave to take best picture.
It’s worth noting that the Academy doubled the number of nominees in 2009. If I only used data from 2009 to the present, 12 Years a Slave wins with 41.4 percent, while Gravity comes in second at 41.2 percent. The standings listed above use earlier data as well, which include the four-year stretch from 2004 to 2007 when the BAFTAs missed best picture every single year, and that’s what causes 12 Years a Slave to fall out of first.
Personally, my gut says 12 Years a Slave has the strongest chance. But I don’t use anything except statistics in making these predictions, and the historical trends favor Gravity. If Gravity does win best director, while 12 Years or another film wins best picture, it would just mean that, historically speaking, this is an unusual year. And because unusual years do happen, that’s why nothing is ever certain until the envelope is opened.
Unlike best picture, this one is easy. Alfonso Cuaron, who won the DGA Award, is the heavy favorite to repeat at the Oscars.
Chiwetel Ejiofor made a late run with his BAFTA win, but it’s not nearly enough in the statistical model to overcome the SAG and Golden Globe wins for McConaughey.
This is one of the easiest categories to pick, as Blanchett swept the three most important indicators: SAG, Golden Globe and BAFTA.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
This is pretty much a toss-up, given the strange circumstance where Jared Leto won the SAG and Golden Globe but didn’t even get nominated for a BAFTA.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Lupita Nyong’o’s biggest strength is her SAG win, but Jennifer Lawrence took both the BAFTA and a Golden Globe, making her the favorite.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
This is one of the closest categories of this year’s Oscars. Statistically speaking, the Writers Guild Awards are a better predictor than the BAFTAs, which is the main reason why Her is ever so slightly on top.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
This prediction may be the most shocking of all those here. Yes, 12 Years a Slave and Philomena were ineligible at the Writers Guild, making Captain Phillips’ win there less significant, but it still is enough to put Phillips in first. However, last year the WGA had a rare miss by excluding Django Unchained, the eventual Oscar winner, so you can’t rule out the movies in second and third place.
TOMORROW: The probable winners in the categories of animated feature, foreign-language film, feature documentary, score and song are revealed.
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