Oscars: Decoding the Best Picture Race Using Just Math

Over the 92-year history of the Oscars, the top prize has gone to the predictable and the unprecedented, but the numbers behind the winners start to show some interesting patterns, writes a data scientist.

The Academy this year must choose among heartless hitmen and sprinting soldiers, supportive sisters and depressed divorcees, action actors and comic book killers. Which of these will win best picture?

Data suggests there are many possible answers.

After all, this is the first year in Oscar history with four films receiving 10 or more nominations each. The previous record was three, shared by 1964 (Mary Poppins, Becket, My Fair Lady) and 1977 (Julia, The Turning Point, Star Wars). Each of this year's 10-plus-nominee contenders – Joker, 1917, The Irishman and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — can make a compelling case for frontrunner status.

With 11 nominations, the comic-book-movie-slash-social-commentary Joker leads the pack (the other three have 10 apiece). Historically, films with the most nominations in their year (or tied for the most) have won 47 percent of their best picture nominations, while all other films have won only 8 percent of theirs.

Or maybe the favorite is Sam Mendes' war epic 1917? Of the 14 movies to win the Golden Globe for best drama as well as the Producers Guild Award, 11 of them (all but Saving Private Ryan, The Aviator and Brokeback Mountain) parlayed those wins into a best picture Oscar.

And then there's The Irishman. Martin Scorsese's mob saga is the only film this year with nominations for best picture, director, film editing and multiple acting nods. Movies that meet those criteria have won 43 percent of their best picture nominations.

But Once Upon a Time in Hollywood can also make a strong argument. Fresh off a best picture win at the Critics Choice Awards, Quentin Tarantino's revisionist history could be picking up momentum at the right time. Since Mendes' American Beauty won 20 years ago at both the Critics Choice Awards and the Oscars, the former group has predicted 70 percent of best picture winners.

And finally, although it has fewer total nominations, don't count out Parasite. Aside from The Irishman, Bong Joon Ho's social thriller is the only other film to receive nominations for best picture, director, film editing, production design and a screenplay nod. Movies with that combination of nominations have won 41 percent of their best picture nominations, representing 13 winners between An American in Paris (1951) and The Shape of Water (2017). And then Parasite followed that up Jan. 19 with a Screen Actors Guild win for best ensemble, an early indicator of upset wins for Shakespeare in Love (1998) and Crash (2005).

While those five frontrunners — also the five nominees for best director at the Oscars and the BAFTAs — clearly form the top tier, it's possible to craft an argument for why the other four films still have hope:

Marriage Story is the only movie with three acting nominations, a trait shared by 34 best picture winners throughout history (nine films share the record at five acting nods, including best picture champions Mrs. Miniver, All About Eve, From Here to Eternity, On the Waterfront, Tom Jones and The Godfather: Part II).

Little Women scored a 95 percent "Fresh" rating from critics and 92 percent "Fresh" from audiences on Rotten Tomatoes; 40 percent of best picture nominees to achieve both those marks or better won the category.

Jojo Rabbit avoided two major issues that befell Marriage Story and Little Women: It received a Directors Guild nomination (only Driving Miss Daisy has overcome the lack of a DGA nod to win the top Oscar prize), and it made the Screen Actors Guild's best ensemble nominees (only Braveheart, The Shape of Water and Green Book won best picture without that recognition).

• Even Ford v Ferrari, with four nominations, can spy a sliver of optimism in the five films that won best picture despite having the fewest nods of any best picture nominee that year: Grand Hotel (1932), In the Heat of the Night (1967), Annie Hall (1977), Ordinary People (1980) and Green Book (2018).

After Feb. 2's BAFTA awards, we'll be able to ascertain which way the races are heading in all 24 Oscar categories by analyzing the correlations between BAFTA winners and Oscar winners in previous years.

The week of the Academy Awards, The Hollywood Reporter will publish the results of my Oscar prediction model, which combines and weights all these factors into the probability that each nominee in each category will emerge victorious.

For now, with more data still on the way, nearly every nominee can hold out hope that by Oscar Sunday on Feb. 9 they may enter as the favorite.

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

This story first appeared in the Jan. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.