OscarLytics: The DGA and WGA Weigh In As 'Gravity' Surges

As Oscar voters get ready to mark their ballots, the odds look good for "Gravity" director Alfonso Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.

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, 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.

The Directors Guild Awards, the Writers Guild Awards and the American Society of Cinematographers Awards are now all behind us. So it’s time to take another look at where the key races stand as the final Oscar voting, which begins Feb. 14, nears.

In a race that is neck-neck-and-neck between 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, and Gravity, the Directors Guild provided a big boost to Gravity. While all of my calculations will still change as awards season marches on, here’s how my mathematical best picture standings look after the DGA results:


This is still a very close race. Gravity leads the pack at 50 percent, but that means it’s just as likely that Gravity wins as it is that Gravity loses. By way of comparison, Argo was at 60 percent last year in my final standings.

The DGAs have only 12 misses for best picture, good for an 81 percent success rate. They haven’t missed since 2005, picking Brokeback Mountain – which was the correct director choice, but not the right picture winner – over Crash. The Guild’s best streak over its 66-year history was a 12-year run from 1969 to 1980.

STORY: OscarLytics: How SAG and the PGA Have Affected the Oscar Race

An American in Paris (1951) and Driving Miss Daisy (1989) are the only two films to win best picture without a DGA nomination, so non-DGA nominees Dallas Buyers Club, Her, Nebraska, and Philomena have to defy history in order to win the big prize.

Unsurprisingly, the DGAs are an even better predictor for the category they’re actually awarding: best director.  Gravity’s Alfonso Cuaron jumped 37 percent with his DGA win. That’s a huge leap for just one award, which shows how significant the DGA is for predicting best director. Even more impressively, the gap between first and second place jumped from 5 percent to 55 percent, so it went from a tight three-way race to a safe bet.  Here are the updated standings:


The DGAs were on a nine-year streak for picking best director until last year, when they picked Ben Affleck for Argo, who wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. The DGAs have at least nominated every single best director winner at the Oscars. That’s really bad news for Alexander Payne, director of Nebraska, who is the only Oscar nominee without a DGA nomination.

The DGAs picked the best director for each of their first 19 years until missing with Anthony Harvey for The Lion in Winter (Carol Reed won the 1968 directing Oscar for Oliver!). That 19-year streak is unrivaled by any predictor for any Oscar category in history. The DGAs have only seven misses in their history, translating to a fantastic 89 percent success rate. They have never missed two years in a row –  something they’ll try to avoid again this year. Last year, Affleck became only the third person to win the DGA without an Oscar nomination, after Steven Spielberg (The Color Purple, 1985) and Ron Howard (Apollo 13, 1995).

STORY: OscarLytics: Which Nominations Are a Lock — And Which Might Surprise

And how about the DGA award for best documentary? While not as good a predictor of the parallel category at the Oscars as the DGA best director award is, the win for The Square still moved the Egyptian documentary up to second place in an extremely tight race:


The DGA award for best documentary shares three nominees with the Oscars: The Act of Killing, Cutie and the Boxer, and The Square. This category dates back to 1991, when the DGAs picked American Dream, which also won an Oscar a year earlier (the Academy Awards decided to count American Dream as a 1990 film). The DGAs then went on a 17-year cold documentary streak before picking three of the past four: The Cove (2009), Inside Job (2010), and Searching for Sugar Man (2012).


The trendline shows that with each passing year, the DGA nominees are matching the Oscar nominees more closely. The peak was in 2003, when the two groups agreed on four nominees. The last two years have been quite strong, each time picking 3/5 in common.

Put differently, to examine the impact that the DGAs have on the Oscar race, we can hold all other variables equal and calculate the chances a nominee has of winning an Oscar given its DGA result:


This chart uses data from 1991-2012. As expected, the DGAs are great at picking best director, quite good at choosing best picture, and only average at predicting best documentary. But in a year that is so wide open in those three categories, there is still plenty of time for this year’s roller coaster ride to take a few more twists and turns.

Turning to the Writers Guild of America. Let me start by saying that the WGAs come with a huge asterisk. They have some of the strictest eligibility guidelines on the awards circuit. For instance, last year’s Oscar original screenplay winner, Django Unchained, was ineligible for the WGA Award. Similarly, this year’s Oscar original screenplay contenders 12 Years a Slave and Philomena were ruled ineligible this year. Keeping that in mind, here are my updated standings for the two screenplay awards:



Even with the eligibility rules, the WGA screenplay awards are still a very good predictor. All eight WGA- ligible Oscar nominees were nominated by the WGA this year. Since the modern two-category split was established in 1984, the WGAs have picked 66 percent of Oscar winners, 18 in the original screenplay category and 20 adapted.

All else being equal (that is, if I used the WGA as my only best screenplay predictor), using the last decade of data, a WGA winner (this year, Her and Captain Phillips) has an 83 percent chance of winning a screenplay award at the Oscars. A WGA-nominated film that does not win has a 3 percent chance of winning at the Oscars. A film that’s ineligible for the WGAs (12 Years a Slave and Philomena) has a 9 percent chance of taking home best screenplay.

The WGA Award for best documentary is not a great predictor for two reasons. First, it only goes back to 2005. Second, Dirty Wars is the sole overlapping nominee with the Oscars this year. The greatest overlap of nominees was three (in 2007), and the fewest was zero (in 2008). However, the WGAs are steadily getting better – they’ve picked three of the past four and four of the past six Oscar winners. This year, the WGA Award for best documentary went to Stories We Tell, which wasn’t even nominated by the Academy.

The American Society of Cinematographers Awards, shed some light on a different category: the Oscar for best cinematography. While the ASC has picked only 37 percent of Oscar winners, it has come on a bit stronger in recent years, picking 9 of the last 18. Now that Gravity has taken this prize, here are my updated Oscar standings for best cinematography:


For only the third time (1995 and 1996 being the others), there were more than five ASC nominees. This year, a three-way tie for fifth resulted in an unprecedented seven nominees. All five Oscar nominees were included among those seven. This is the fourth time the ASC has nominated every Oscar nominee, a feat it also managed in 1996, 2007, and 2010. In all three of those years, the ASC and the Oscars likewise agreed on the winner (The English Patient in 1996, There Will Be Blood in 2007, and Inception in 2010), a good sign for this year’s winner, Gravity.

Holding all other variables equal, using the previous 18 years of data, an ASC win gives a film a 45 percent chance of winning best cinematography, and a loss knocks a film down to a 14 percent chance.

An interesting side story to watch for in this category is whether either of two legendary cinematographers – Roger Deakins (Prisoners) or Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity) – will finally win his first Oscar. Even though both have won multiple ASC awards, Deakins is still 0/10 at the Oscars, and Lubezki is 0/5. Between them, they won both of the ASC Awards in the two previous years (Lubezki in 2011 for The Tree of Life; Deakins in 2012 for Skyfall), but both went on to lose the Oscar. Despite Deakins’ lengthy history of being a bridesmaid at the Oscars, the runner-up record belongs to Kevin O’Connell, with 20 losses for best sound mixing without a single win.

This was the first time the ASC gave out a second film award, the Spotlight Award, reserved for films from film festivals, the international market, or limited release. Ida was the inaugural winner. However, none of the three Spotlight nominees received any Oscar nominations, so this new award has no bearing on the Oscar race.

Email: bzauzmer@college.harvard.edu

Twitter: @BensOscarMath