Oscars: Predicting the Nominations Using Just Math

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Applying a mathematical model, here are the most probable nominees in the top six categories.

As the clock ticks down to Thursday morning’s announcement of the nominees for 88th Academy Awards, a lot of potential nominees are nervously wondering right now, “What are the odds?”

Here are the answers, using metrics such as other award shows, guild awards and aggregate critic scores to determine the probability of nominees in the main categories. This has nothing to do with personal preferences. Instead, the probabilities are calculated according to how significant each predictor has been in the past, and then weighing this year’s awards season data accordingly.

Best Picture

1. Spotlight: 99.9%
2. Mad Max: Fury Road: 99.9%
3. The Revenant: 99.6%
4. The Big Short: 97.5%
5. Carol: 93.5%
6. The Martian: 91.6%
7. Room: 77.6%
8. Sicario: 66.3%
9. Brooklyn: 59.3%
10. Bridge of Spies: 50.5%
11. Inside Out: 24.4%
12. Straight Outta Compton: 18.7%
13. Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens: 10.3%
14. Ex Machina: 8.9%
15. The Danish Girl: 7.8%
16. Trumbo: 6.2%
17. Beasts of No Nation: 6.2%
18. Spy: 5.2%
18. Trainwreck: 5.2%
20. Joy: 4.4%

Starting from the top, it will come as a surprise to no one that Spotlight, Max Max: Fury Road and The Revenant are basically locks to get nominations.

The next tier is The Big Short, Carol and The Martian. None of them has a perfect résumé: For example, the first two won no Golden Globes, and The Martian missed out on a BAFTA nomination. But they also have a lot going for them as well, landing on nomination lists and top-10 lists far more consistently than the movies outside of the top six.

Then come the interesting movies, the borderline cases, that will largely depend upon how many films the Academy nominates this year. During the past four years, the Academy has used voting procedures that result in a variable category size; though the number of nominees is officially allowed to bounce between five and 10, either eight or nine films have made the cut each year.

That means all of the movies from Inside Out on down are long-shots — not impossible, but they need a little luck. Look for Room, Sicario, Brooklyn, and Bridge of Spies to be among the best bets to round out the most prestigious category. Sicario’s inclusion may appear the most surprising, but nominations from the Producers Guild, the Critics Choice Awards and the American Cinema Editors are nothing to sneeze at.

Best Director

1. Alejandro G. InarrituThe Revenant: 99.6%
2. George Miller — Mad Max: Fury Road: 95.3%
3. Tom McCarthy — Spotlight: 89.9%
4. Todd Haynes — Carol: 73.1%
5. Ridley Scott — The Martian: 56.4%
6. Adam McKay — The Big Short: 24.8%
7. Steven Spielberg — Bridge of Spies: 6.3%

Four of the top five — Inarritu, Miller, McCarthy, and Scott — should surprise no one. Armed with both Directors Guild and Golden Globe nominations, those four seem to clearly deserve their scores above the 50 percent threshold. But what about the placement of No. 4 and No. 6? Earlier this week, on Jan. 12, McKay beat out Haynes for a Directors Guild nomination. But while the DGA alone is the single best predictor of best director, it’s not enough by itself to counter Haynes’ mentions from the Golden Globes, the Critics Choice Awards and many a critics circle across the country.

Best Actor

1. Leonardo DiCaprioThe Revenant: 88.4%
2. Matt Damon — The Martian: 86.9%
3. Michael FassbenderSteve Jobs: 85.6%
3. Eddie RedmayneThe Danish Girl: 85.6%
5. Bryan Cranston — Trumbo: 78.3%
6. Johnny Depp — Black Mass: 68.1%

This year, best actor is a very top-heavy race. Six actors come in at well over 50 percent, and everyone else hardly registers. That’s what happens when the BAFTAs and SAGs agree on four of their five nominees. As for the two on that list they did not agree on — the SAGs chose Depp while the BAFTAs went with Damon — the latter earned an additional boost with a Golden Globe victory Sunday night. Yes, it may have been in the comedy/musical category, an odd placement for The Martian, but each of the last four Golden Globe comedic lead actor champions went on to secure an Oscar nomination.

Best Actress

1. Brie Larson — Room: 99.8%
2. Cate BlanchettCarol: 90.1%
3. Saoirse Ronan — Brooklyn: 90.1%
4. Jennifer Lawrence — Joy: 41.9%
5. Charlotte Rampling45 Years: 10.4%
6. Charlize Theron — Mad Max: Fury Road: 10.4%
7. Maggie Smith — The Lady in the Van: 3.4%
8. Helen MirrenWoman in Gold: 2.5%
9. Sarah Silverman — I Smile Back: 2.5%

Best actress is a decidedly different race from best actor. There is a clear Tier 1, led by Larson, with Blanchett and Ronan not far behind. Lawrence, buoyed by her Golden Globe win in the comedy/musical category, comes in fourth. But then there is a slew of actresses, none of whom has put together enough of a résumé to convince the math that she firmly belongs in the fifth spot. Everyone below Lawrence has such a low percentage that it’s practically a toss-up.

Best Supporting Actor

1. Mark RylanceBridge of Spies: 88.8%
2. Idris Elba — Beasts of No Nation: 88.7%
3. Christian Bale — The Big Short: 82.0%
4. Sylvester StalloneCreed: 78.6%
5. Paul DanoLove & Mercy: 75.9%
6. Michael Shannon — 99 Homes: 72.9%
7. Benicio del Toro — Sicario: 34.0%
8. Jacob TremblayRoom: 21.9%
9. Tom Hardy — The Revenant: 17.2%

In all likelihood, this is an epic race between six deserving men for five spots. No. 1 Rylance (Bridge of Spies) and No. 6  Shannon (99 Homes) are separated by a mere 16 percentage points. But three others cracked double-digit percentages — del Toro, Tremblay, and Hardy — so there is still ample room for an upset. A notable absence from this list is Mark Ruffalo (Spotlight), but his chances took a hit when he failed to secure either a SAG or Golden Globe nomination.

Best Supporting Actress

1. Kate WinsletSteve Jobs: 88.8%
2. Rooney Mara — Carol: 88.5%
3. Alicia VikanderThe Danish Girl: 87.8%
4. Jennifer Jason Leigh — The Hateful Eight: 59.6%
5. Alicia VikanderEx Machina: 55.2%
6. Helen MirrenTrumbo: 46.0%
7. Rachel McAdams — Spotlight: 7.8%

Strangely, best supporting actress this year is as much about quality of performance as it is about so-called “category fraud.” Is Mara really in a supporting role in Carol? How about Vikander in The Danish Girl? Common sense might say no, but their studios are campaigning for them to be included as supporting nominees, presumably gambling that it’s an easier category to win. And, in Mara’s case, that would prevent her from competing with Blanchett, a likely contender for best actress for the same film. But the Academy has the final say, and if they choose to overrule the studios on those two nominees, this is suddenly a wide-open race.

You can study the odds all we want, but until the Academy makes their Thursday morning announcement, there’s nothing left to do but await the end of ballot counting. And then the real race begins.

Ben Zauzmer (@BensOscarMath) uses math to predict and write about the Oscars for The Hollywood Reporter. He recently graduated from Harvard with a degree in applied math, and he now works as a baseball analyst for the Los Angeles Dodgers.