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The preferential ballot is many things to Oscar viewers. To the Academy itself, it’s a fairer way to build consensus around a best picture winner (but not the other 22 categories). To awards-watchers, it’s a source of consternation when they dislike a winner (say, Green Book over Roma). To the casual fans, it’s a term they may not have even heard of.
To me? The preferential ballot makes the Oscars more exciting, precisely because it’s a deviation from both the other 22 categories and earlier years of the best picture race. These changes seem to have caused rifts in the usual patterns we got to know around best picture. The best picture winner was “always” a best director nominee … until Argo and Green Book. The best picture winner “always” won at least three Oscars … until Spotlight. An English-language film always won the final award … until Parasite.
In my annual mathematical Oscars model, which weights factors such as other category nominations and prior awards shows based on how well they’ve predicted each Oscar category in the past, I do my best to account for these nuances and changes over time. But with all categories — and especially the unique best picture — the math says we’re in for an exciting night.
CODA will be a very popular pick, and rightfully so: It won top honors from both the Screen Actors Guild and the Producers Guild, the latter of which uses that same preferential ballot method of voting. But we still don’t have enough years of data to entirely trash the old rules of thumb. The Power of the Dog is still a best director nominee, a best film editing nominee, a Critics Choice winner, a BAFTA winner, and a Directors Guild winner. CODA has none of that. Not to mention, Power of the Dog received 12 nominations to CODA’s 3. Jane Campion’s film is below 50% to win, so this is hardly a sure thing, but the math says it remains the favorite.
Unlike best picture, this category comes to us with a much clearer favorite. The all-important Directors Guild went with Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog), and the statistical model sees no reason to disagree. Short of a significant upset, she will be the third female director to win the category, after Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) in 2010 and Chloe Zhao (Nomadland) last year.
Will Smith made nearly a clean sweep through awards season for his leading role in King Richard. Golden Globes, BAFTA, Screen Actors Guild, Critics Choice, and plenty more. Hard to ask for a stronger Oscar resume, and that’s enough to make him the strong favorite in this category, with none of his competitors reaching 6% odds.
Best actress, on the other hand, is one of the most exciting races of the night. The data prefers Jessica Chastain (The Eyes of Tammy Faye) to win her first Oscar after two unsuccessful nominations. But you really can’t count out any of the five contenders, especially not Nicole Kidman (Being the Ricardos). All five nominees in this race have higher odds to win than the bottom four best actor contenders.
Best Supporting Actor
This category comes down to two nominees, and both would be historic. Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Power of the Dog) would be the second youngest winner in category history, after Timothy Hutton (Ordinary People). But the math favors Troy Kotsur (CODA), who would be the second deaf actor to win an Oscar. As it turns out, the first was his CODA co-star, Marlee Matlin, for Children of a Lesser God.
Best Supporting Actress
Anita from West Side Story has already won an Oscar … for Rita Moreno’s portrayal in the best picture-winning 1961 version of the movie musical. And it sure looks like Anita’s about to find another, thanks to Ariana DeBose’s riveting portrayal of the iconic role, in a newer version produced by and co-starring Rita Moreno. That means Anita will join Don Corleone and The Joker as the only characters to win Oscars for two different actors.
Best Original Screenplay
Best original screenplay is the single closest category of the night, as just 2.5% separates Belfast and Licorice Pizza. At the last moment on Sunday night, Don’t Look Up won the Writers Guild Award over Licorice Pizza (Belfast was ineligible), so don’t sleep on that script, either. All of that makes for a true toss-up, and arguably the toughest category to predict of the entire evening.
Best Adapted Screenplay
Not to be outdone by its original counterpart, best adapted screenplay is almost as close. The math gives a slight edge to CODA, both due to its Writers Guild honor (The Power of the Dog was ineligible, which I attempt to account for as best as I can) and its BAFTA win head-to-head against The Power of the Dog. But Jane Campion’s script defeated Sian Heder’s at the Critics Choice Awards, and only Campion was nominated for the Golden Globe, so this battle between the top two best picture contenders could easily go either way.
Best Animated Feature
There’s some game theory involved in winning an Oscar pool. If you’re competing against a small number of people, your best bet is to pick almost entirely favorites up and down the ballot. But if it’s a large pool, it can actually be a better strategy to mix in a few upsets, in order to distinguish yourself from the pack. And best animated feature might be the best category to do that in: A lot of people assume Encanto is going to win, and while it is the slight favorite, The Mitchells vs. the Machines is way closer than people are giving it credit for.
Best Documentary Feature
At last year’s Oscars, three films had the opportunity to premiere in front of a global audience: In the Heights, West Side Story, and Summer of Soul. The middle movie is a best picture nominee and best supporting actress favorite, and the latter one is favored to take best documentary. Questlove’s exploration of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival has just over a two-in-three chance to win.
Best International Feature
Six films before this year have been nominated for best international film and best picture in the same season: Z, Life Is Beautiful, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Amour, Roma, and Parasite. All six won best international film. Don’t overthink this one: Drive My Car is the favorite.
Best Production Design
West Side Story transformed New York City into a stage fit for one the great musicals of the 20th century. Nightmare Alley somehow made a cheery carnival scene into the stuff of terrors. Both would be worthy production design winners, and both have over a 12% chance to win the category. But the math favors Dune, which successfully brought Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic to life, complete with all of the deserts and planets and people and creatures from the novel.
In the final pre-Oscars event of awards season, Dune won the American Society of Cinematographers Award to lock in its first place ranking in these probabilities. But probabilities are far from guarantees, and The Power of the Dog still has a better than 1-in-4 shot of winning the trophy. The latter film’s cinematographer, Ari Wegner, is the second woman nominated in the category and could become the first female winner.
Best Film Editing
No one can agree on best film editing this year. The BAFTAs went to No Time to Die, which wasn’t nominated for the Oscar. The Critics Choice Awards went with West Side Story, also not an Oscar contender. The Eddies went with King Richard and Tick, tick … BOOM! for their top two categories. But, a hefty chunk of the less renowned awards, along with the betting markets, formed a weak consensus around Dune. While none of those individually move the needle all that much, they combine for a modest lead for Dune in the standings.
Best Visual Effects
No, you’re not re-reading the same paragraph. This is indeed the fourth straight category that likes Denis Villeneuve’s film as the statistical favorite. The sandworms alone were impressive enough to warrant serious consideration in this category, and when you add in the film’s ten nominations, this one seems pretty likely. The most nominated film has won this category each of the last four years.
Best Costume Design
Jenny Beavan (Cruella) owns a pair of Oscars, 30 years apart, for A Room with a View and Mad Max: Fury Road. It might take her just six years to get the next one, as her costumes for a film about an aspiring fashion designer have vaulted her into first place. But, as with every single craft category this year, count out Dune at your own risk.
Best Makeup and Hairstyling
The Eyes of Tammy Faye not only faced the common challenge of recreating well-know historical figures on screen, but they sought it head-on by even mentioning Tammy Faye’s eyes in the very title, ensuring the attention would be on them from minute one. Fortunately, makeup artists Linda Dowds and Justin Raleigh, along with hair stylist Stephanie Ingram, were up to the challenge.
Best Original Score
Hans Zimmer’s score to Dune isn’t exactly pleasure listening. Then again, it isn’t supposed to be. If you need a refresher, here’s the main theme in all of its glorious creepiness. If that music doesn’t describe a dreary, near-hopeless futuristic world of rival houses and merciless battles, I don’t know what does. Though it’s his 12th nomination, this would only be Zimmer’s second Oscar, following his win for The Lion King.
Best Original Song
The first 24 James Bond films did not win, or were not nominated for, best original song. But each of the last three? Adele and Paul Epworth won for “Skyfall,” Sam Smith and Jimmy Napes won for “Writing’s on the Wall,” and sister-brother duo Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell are favored to win for “No Time to Die.” The second-most likely winner is “Dos Oruguitas” from Encanto, though one can’t help but wonder what this race would look like if Disney had instead pushed for “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” the surprise smash hit from the same film.
It’s only the second year of the recombined best sound category. So, while that makes the formula a bit uncertain as to how to rely on the historical data, the fact is that Dune would have been favored to win both best sound editing and best sound mixing, so predicting Dune in the joint category is a fairly safe assumption.
There isn’t enough data to predict the three short film categories mathematically, though betting markets currently favor The Long Goodbye for live-action short, Robin Robin for animated short, and The Queen of Basketball for documentary short.
If these percentages tell us anything, it’s to get excited for an unpredictable night in many of these 23 categories, culminating in a fascinating best picture race.
Ben Zauzmer is the author of Oscarmetrics: The Math Behind the Biggest Night in Hollywood.
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