Predicting This Year's Oscar Winners, Using Just Math

Oscars Poll - H - 2019

A category-by-category forecast on which victories are the most likely at the 92nd Academy Awards.

Consider the following Oscar facts:

1. Since the creation of the best film editing award in 1934, no film has won best picture without either an editing or acting nomination.

2. Since the creation of the Directors Guild Awards in 1948, no film has won best picture without either a DGA win or an editing nomination.

3. No foreign-language film has ever won best picture.

4. No film produced by a streaming service has won best picture.

5. No comic book film has won best picture.

And yet, if 1917 wins, the first of those facts will fall. Same for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood with the second fact, Parasite the third, The Irishman the fourth, and Joker the fifth. Does this mean we can rule out all five of these films on Sunday night? Of course not.

This is where statistics comes in. Statistics doesn’t mean hunting for absolutes and assigning 0 percent or 100 percent to everything. It means giving each piece of information the proper weight, and translating those weights into probabilities. Each year for the past nine years, I’ve predicted the Oscars using nothing but probability. On my computer, facts like the ones above and many more get converted into data, plugged into formulas, and output into the charts you see below. Math and Oscar history can’t guarantee any wins, but they can point the way to which wins are the most likely.

Best Picture

Turns out math is going with the first best picture nominee in history whose entire title is a number, 1917. Thanks to wins from groups including the Golden Globes, the Producers Guild, the Directors Guild, and the BAFTAs, the two-hour tracking shot is in front to win the top prize. But don’t count out Screen Actors Guild best cast victor Parasite or Golden Globe and Critics' Choice winner Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Keep in mind that The Irishman got 10 nominations and Joker got 11, and this race is far from over.

Best Director

It’s been 17 years since an Oscar nominee for best director won the DGA Award but lost the Oscar. That year, Rob Marshall (Chicago) won the DGA but Roman Polanski (The Pianist) took the Academy Award. In between, there was an odd year when Ben Affleck (Argo) won the DGA but wasn’t nominated for the Oscar. Still, it’s a nearly airtight rule that the DGA winner is the favorite in this category, and 2019 is no exception. Sam Mendes choreographed an epic war film with only a small number of nearly imperceptible cuts, and he is the odds-on favorite to be rewarded for his work with a golden trophy.

Best Actor

Joaquin Phoenix has dominated awards season for his terrifying portrayal of the title character in Joker. A four-time nominee (previous nominations for Gladiator, Walk the Line and The Master), this could finally be the year that puts Phoenix on top. No one has ever won — or even been nominated — for a lead acting category for a comic book film (Heath Ledger’s win for the same role was in the supporting race), but Phoenix appears all set to make history.

Best Actress

Renée Zellweger (Judy) has also run the table this awards season. Making her path (and Phoenix’s) even easier is that the two Golden Globe acting winners for comedy/musicals — Taron Egerton (Rocketman) and Awkwafina (The Farewell) — weren’t even nominated at the Oscars, while Phoenix and Zellweger took the drama categories. The last time that neither comedy/musical winner at the Globes received an Oscar nomination was 2008, when Colin Farrell (In Bruges) and Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky) went overlooked by the Academy.

Best Supporting Actor

Brad Pitt may play the stuntman to Leonardo DiCaprio’s leading man in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but there’s no denying he’s in the inner circle of A-list Hollywood stars. And yet, he’s never won an acting Oscar, with a lone trophy for producing 12 Years a Slave (2013). Whether due to the performance itself or due to wanting to push Pitt over the finish line — or perhaps a little of both — the major precursors all lined up behind him for the supporting actor race.

Best Supporting Actress

The acting categories all feel very similar this year. Once again, we have a contender who swept the Golden Globe, Critics' Choice, SAG and BAFTA awards, and has previous Oscar nominations. In this race, it’s Laura Dern out in front, trying to win her first Oscar for her role as a divorce attorney in Marriage Story.

Best Original Screenplay

Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) seemed primed to tie Woody Allen for the most Oscar wins for best original screenplay, with three. And then, this past weekend, his lead collapsed. On Saturday night, Tarantino was ineligible at the Writers Guild Awards, which my model accounts for, and Parasite took the award. Less than 24 hours later, Parasite’s Bong Joon Ho and Han Jin-won repeated their win at the BAFTAs — this time going head-to-head with Tarantino — and that was barely enough to put the South Korean heart-pounder in first.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Just like its original counterpart, best adapted screenplay saw a last-second surge. Greta Gerwig (Little Women) began on top with wins from the USC Scripter Awards and a number of critics groups. But on the final pre-Oscars weekend, Little Women went head-to-head against Jojo Rabbit at the Writers Guild Awards and BAFTAs. Taika Waititi went two-for-two in those matchups, and the math now favors him to make it a third straight win at the Oscars.

Best Animated Feature

The most honored member of the bunch, Toy Story 4, holds the statistical lead. But there are reasons to doubt Buzz and Woody’s path to the podium. For one thing, no franchise has ever won this category twice, and Toy Story already had its turn for part three in 2010. For another, the previous awards were far from unanimous, with Missing Link taking the Golden Globe and Klaus winning the BAFTA.

Best Documentary Feature

The mathematical leader is American Factory, which garnered extra press as the first film produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company. But it’s a nail-biter: Honeyland is the first movie in Oscar history to be nominated for both best documentary feature and best international feature (the new name for best foreign-language film). And on Sunday, For Sama beat American Factory at the BAFTAs. Add in the fact that a number of precursor honors went to the unnominated Apollo 11, and this race is wide open.

Best International Feature

This is one of the most lopsided races of the night, for obvious reasons. Parasite has won so many accolades that it’s the second-most-likely film to win best picture, so surely it stands to reason that it’s the best international film of the year. Five previous films have been nominated for this category as well as best picture in the same year, and all five went on to win the International race: Z (1969); Life Is Beautiful (1998); Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000); Amour (2012); and Roma (2018).

Best Production Design

1917 won the BAFTA for best production design. Parasite won the Art Directors Guild award for contemporary film. The critics groups were inconsistent. But the math likes Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, thanks to its Critics' Choice win and its Art Directors Guild win in the period film category (which all the non-Parasite Oscar nominees participated in). The film delivered a masterful and nostalgic re-creation of 1969 Los Angeles, and it might just be enough to win an Oscar on Sunday night in Hollywood.

Best Cinematography

It’s hard enough to capture each shot of a war film when the scenes will only last a few seconds before cutting. Now imagine the enormity of Roger Deakins’ challenge to make every moment of 1917 look perfect on the big screen, knowing that the next cut wouldn’t be for many minutes. It felt like this movie’s plot was constantly running, yet the camera kept up beautifully with the actors and the action. Deakins was once known for losing these awards, starting his Oscar career 0/13, but he may be about to win two in three years following his Blade Runner 2049 victory.

Best Original Score

Hildur Gudnadóttir has already made history as the first female solo winner of best original score at the Golden Globes for her haunting soundtrack to Joker. Add on a Critics' Choice and BAFTA win, and there’s your favorite. But don’t count out 1917, whose soaring score added as much to that film as Joker’s did to that one. Composer Thomas Newman is on his 14th nomination, and his fellow Academy members may be anxious to finally bestow him his first trophy.

Best Original Song

Elton John’s annual Oscars party might be a little more celebratory this year if he can follow up on his previous wins for “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” the song he co-wrote with Bernie Taupin for Rocketman. This would be Sir Elton’s second Oscar win, a quarter-century after “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” from The Lion King. But speaking of seconds, “Into the Unknown” from Frozen 2 also has a shot of winning that franchise’s second Oscar for best original song.

Best Film Editing

Boy is this close. This is the only category in which no nominee reached 30 percent or higher to win. But two of them almost reached that threshold. Ford v Ferrari won the BAFTA on Sunday to speed into first place for its slickly edited auto-racing scenes. But Parasite won the drama film category from the American Cinema Editors, which also has a decent track record in this category. Also complicating matters is that tracking-shot film 1917 won the Critics' Choice award for best editing but wasn’t nominated by the Oscars.

Best Visual Effects

This one makes best film editing look like a cakewalk to predict, as we’ve arrived at the single closest race of the night. I’ll admit I let out a small gasp when I saw what my computer spit out on this category. Just 0.1 percentage points separate the mathematical frontrunner Avengers: Endgame, winner of the majority of precursor awards in this category, from 1917, the leader in the betting markets (which are one of the factors in my model). It’s a battle between a film nominated in only this category and a film nominated in nine others.

Best Costume Design

The math likes BAFTA winner Little Women to win best costume design, but there are holes in its Oscar résumé. It doesn’t have a best production design nomination, a category often correlated with this one. It went unnominated by the Costume Designers Guild Awards. The only two Oscar nominees that did receive CDG nominations — Jojo Rabbit and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — sit in second and third place, respectively, and are also strong contenders to win this one.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

The top two nominees earn their places for very different tasks. The Bombshell makeup artists and hairstylists had to bring well-known Fox News personalities to the big screen, and did so with astonishing accuracy. Stepping away from the real world, the Joker team had to reinvent one of the most famous villains in the history of fiction, and in doing so aided in Joaquin Phoenix in his haunting performance. Statistics gives the edge to Bombshell.

Best Sound Editing

My model is based on a number of factors, one of them being the betting markets. But it’s not the only factor, so sometimes public perception and data will differ. This year, both sound categories fall into that bucket, as bettors favor 1917 but the math says Ford v Ferrari has the edge in each race. The Motion Picture Sound Editors and the Cinema Audio Society both went for the car-racing sounds of Ford v Ferrari, and we’ll see if Oscar voters do as well.

Best Sound Mixing

If the mathematical favorites were to run the table, this would conclude quite a special night for Ford v Ferrari, winning all of its nominations except Best Picture. Among films with four or more nominations, that’s only been done seven times: The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Jaws (1975), Traffic (2000) and Bohemian Rhapsody (2018). But sweeping is going to be hard — all three of Ford’s potential wins are among the closest categories of the evening.

Note: There isn’t enough data to predict the short film categories with math. In total, there are predictions in 21 categories – 21 envelopes to be opened, 21 bursts of excitement, 21 speeches seen by millions. Who knows what will happen, but thanks to math, we might have just gotten a sneak peek.

Ben Zauzmer (@BensOscarMath) is the author of Oscarmetrics: The Math Behind the Biggest Night in Hollywood.