Predicting This Year's Oscar Nominations Using Just Math

The Irishman, 1917, Parasite, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Marriage Story - Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy of Films

Based on the data, there's a clear top four in the 2020 awards race.

It was a year of numbers onscreen: Six people fighting next door to Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Five people living in a Parasite-infested house. Four Little Women telling their stories. Three suspicious children of Harlan Thrombey drawing their Knives Out. Two people separating in a Marriage Story. One spectacular tracking shot in the year 1917.

But, with the Oscar nominations due out Monday morning, there’s only one number that producers, directors, actors or screenwriters care about: “What are my chances of getting a nomination?”

That’s where math comes in. Every year, I calculate the probability that each potential nominee in eight major categories will be nominated for an Oscar. My method weights data from other awards shows based on how predictive that data has been in the past. No personal preferences or guesses are involved. While the numbers below are primarily designed to predict Monday’s announcement, they also serve as an early set of standings for the Oscars themselves, with one month to go before the big night.

Best Picture

There’s a clear top four in this year’s race, composed of The Irishman, 1917, Parasite and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. These were the only four films to receive nominations from the Producers Guild of America, the Directors Guild of America and the BAFTAs, along with a host of other honors in the past month. It would be extremely surprising to see any of them miss out on a best picture Oscar nomination, seeing as all four have a decent chance to win the top prize.

The next tier is comprised of Marriage Story, Joker and Jojo Rabbit. While there technically could be fewer than seven nominations, there have been at least eight slots every year since the current rules took effect. That makes these three movies probably safe, though not quite guaranteed.

After that, the predictions get tough. There may be only one or two more openings, and seven films sit between 10 percent and 50 percent to grab one of them. PGA Award nominees Little Women and Ford v Ferrari make the strongest cases, but Golden Globe nominees The Two Popes and Knives Out are hardly out of the race.

Best Director

Unsurprisingly, the same top four for best picture are all very likely to hear their names called for best director. Sam Mendes, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Bong Joon Ho were nominated for best director by the DGA and the BAFTAs, in addition to a number of critic groups, and it would require a serious upset to see any of them get left off the Oscar shortlist.

In the absence of such an upset, we have room for only one more. Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story) and Greta Gerwig (Little Women) both have strong résumés highlighted by Critics' Choice Award nominations. But in the last few days, a DGA nod for Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit) and a BAFTA nomination for Todd Phillips (Joker) allowed them back into the race.

Best Actor

Newly crowned Golden Globe winner Joaquin Phoenix (Joker) leads the way, and Adam Driver (Marriage Story) can probably rest easy Sunday night. After that, no one is entirely safe. Leonardo DiCaprio (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) and Taron Egerton (Rocketman) both received nominations from the BAFTAs, the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the Golden Globes — with Egerton winning the latter — so they’re the next best bets.

After the top four, there’s a big drop-off, and the math identifies six contenders most likely to grab the final invitation. Golden Globe and BAFTA nominee Jonathan Pryce (The Two Popes) is ahead in this tier, but by only a slim margin.

Best Actress

Like Phoenix, Renee Zellweger (Judy) notched a Golden Globe win (best actress in a motion picture - drama) to put the finishing touches on her Oscar nomination case. Charlize Theron (Bombshell) and Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story) are tied at 89 percent to join Zellweger at the Dolby.

From there, it may come down to four actresses for two spots. Saoirse Ronan (Little Women) and Cynthia Erivo (Harriet) earned mentions in the Golden Globe drama category — generally the more predictive of the two — but Awkwafina (The Farewell) won the comedy/musical race. And don’t count out SAG nominee Lupita Nyong’o (Us), either.

Best Supporting Actor

Brad Pitt (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) seems like a surefire bet to get nominated, and could be a strong contender to win the category, especially if The Irishman co-stars Al Pacino and Joe Pesci split the vote among fans of that film. Tom Hanks (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood) got nominations from all the major groups in December, and while 81 percent is no guarantee, it’s also plenty good enough to put him solidly in the top four.

Then there’s a slew of contenders vying for the last slot. I listed the next three — Anthony Hopkins (The Two Popes), Willem Dafoe (The Lighthouse) and Jamie Foxx (Just Mercy) — but it’s even possible that someone outside this group pulls off the upset and joins the top five.

Best Supporting Actress

Laura Dern is extremely likely to join Marriage Story co-stars Adam Driver and Johansson at the Oscars. Margot Robbie gets two bites at the apple, with a nomination for Bombshell being far more likely than one for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Despite missing out on a BAFTA nomination, Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers) has enough of an Oscar résumé this season to reach 88 percent by my model.

Speaking of Johansson, she could become the first person since Cate Blanchett in 2007 to score two acting nominations in the same year, between her leading role in Marriage Story and her supporting one in Jojo Rabbit. All other supporting actress candidates sit below 50 percent, with Florence Pugh (Little Women), Annette Bening (The Report) and Nicole Kidman (Bombshell) next up on the ledger.

Best Original Screenplay

Likely best picture competitors Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Marriage Story and Parasite will also do battle for best original screenplay, as those were the three original scripts to get Golden Globe recognition. Since Once Upon a Time and The Farewell weren’t eligible for the Writers Guild of America Awards, that left three spots for the WGAs, which went to Knives Out, Booksmart and 1917.

Best Adapted Screenplay

The five BAFTA nominees are the top five contenders for best adapted screenplay: The Irishman, The Two Popes, Jojo Rabbit, Little Women and Joker. That said, the last of those missed out on a USC Scripter nomination, so its chances trail behind the top four. That could leave an opening for WGA nominee A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood or Scripter nominee Dark Waters.

But all of these numbers tell us only the probability of Oscar nominations — hardly the same as telling us how much we enjoyed this wonderful year in film or how any particular movie made us feel. Numbers aside, 2019 gave us moment after moment on the big screen, and now we’re just a month away from honoring the very best of them.

Ben Zauzmer (@BensOscarMath) is the author of Oscarmetrics: The Math Behind the Biggest Night in Hollywood. He uses math to predict the Oscars for The Hollywood Reporter.