Predicting This Year’s Oscar Winners Using Just Math
When it comes to silver screen fame, acting is king. On-screen talent gets the most publicity time on talk shows. They garner the most headlines. They draw the highest number of flash bulbs on the red carpet. And outside of best picture, the set of categories I’m most often asked about are the four that honor acting.
In my first 11 years of using only math to predict the Oscars, my answer to that question was straightforward in at least one of the four acting categories: Every single year, at least one person swept the Screen Actors Guild, BAFTA, Golden Globes, and Critics Choice honors in an acting category, making my job a lot easier. But not this year. For the first time since 2002, no individual completed that sweep, meaning we’ve got ourselves the most exciting set of acting races in decades.
The mathematical predictions that follow weight historical data based on the track record each predictor — such as precursor honors, other category nominations, betting markets, etc. — has at predicting each category. But, especially in this year’s acting races, it’s important to remember that the model produces percentages, not guarantees. Some years will be like last year, when 19 of the 20 mathematical favorites from my model went on to win Oscars. Some years will have more upsets. We’re about to find out which type of a year it is.
Best picture has proven surprisingly tricky to predict in recent years, with wins for Spotlight and Moonlight and Green Book and CODA, among others, defying some historical trends. But it would be a huge overreaction to say that all statistics should be thrown out the window. Statistics by its very nature doesn’t deal in absolutes: it deals in probabilities. So, the model adjusts over time, and realizes that even a heavy favorite like Everything Everywhere All at Once only has a two-in-three chance to win. Still very good, but not as high as a strong frontrunner would be in a more predictable category.
Jerome Robbins & Robert Wise (West Side Story) and the Coen Brothers (No Country for Old Men) are the only duos to jointly win best director. The math likes Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s (Everything Everywhere All at Once) chances to become the third. If there is to be an upset, Martin McDonagh (The Banshees of Inisherin) and Todd Field (Tár) would be the next men up.
Best actor is one of the toughest categories of the night. Colin Farrell (The Banshees of Inisherin) won the Golden Globe – Comedy/Musical. Brendan Fraser (The Whale) took both the Critics Choice Award and the Screen Actors Guild Award. But, the model favors Austin Butler (Elvis) to beat out both of them, thanks in part to his BAFTA and Golden Globe – Drama wins, both of which came head-to-head against Fraser. Butler’s film is also up for best picture, which is historically a big boost in the best actor race. The lead isn’t big, though. A mere eight percentage points separate the top two, so while it’s not quite a coin toss, it’s pretty darn close to one.
My jaw hit the floor when I saw my computer produce these numbers: not because Cate Blanchett (Tár) is ahead, but because of the degree to which she’s ahead. But it’s not a bug: Blanchett won head-to-head at BAFTA and Critics Choice, and won the more predictive Golden Globe category. Michelle Yeoh (Everything Everywhere All at Once) won the last major award, the SAG, but the model doesn’t put too much stock into the concept of momentum. Yeoh could absolutely win, as many are predicting, but it’s hardly a sure thing.
Best Supporting Actor
You know it’s a tough year for predicting acting races when the biggest frontrunner in any category is still someone who lost the BAFTA, among other races earlier in Oscar season. Ke Huy Quan (Everything Everywhere All at Once) has a good-but-not-perfect Oscar resume, giving him just over a 3-in-4 chance of winning the award. If he falters, look to either of the nominees from The Banshees of Inisherin to race to the finish line.
Best Supporting Actress
Earlier in awards season, there was a time when Kerry Condon (The Banshees of Inisherin) looked like the favorite. Then Angela Bassett (Black Panther: Wakanda Forever) won the Golden Globe and the Critics Choice Award. But the drama wasn’t over yet: Jamie Lee Curtis shocked the world with a SAG win during a historic sweep for Everything Everywhere All at Once. That leaves three nominees above 20 percent. Fasten those seatbelts.
Best Original Screenplay
Here it is, folks. The single closest race of the night. Martin McDonagh (The Banshees of Inisherin) is no stranger to close races. In my model from five years ago, he trailed Shape of Water for best picture by 5 percent and trailed Get Out for best original screenplay by 10 percent. While the mathematical favorites won both of those categories in a nearly upset-free year (the model went 20-for-21), this year’s McDonagh race is even closer. The Daniels (Everything Everywhere All at Once) lead by just 3 percent, so maybe just go with your gut between the top two when entering that Oscar pool.
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best adapted screenplay is a rather strange race this year. The top two contenders are Women Talking and All Quiet on the Western Front, yet they haven’t squared off head-to-head at any of the most prominent precursors, due to a combination of lack of nominations and ineligible scripts at certain award shows. And so, like a World Series before interleague play began, Sarah Polley and the trio of Edward Berger, Lesley Paterson, and Ian Stokell will finally face off for the first time when it matters most on Sunday night.
Best Animated Feature
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio for best animated feature is officially the single most likely nominee to win in any category at the 95th Academy Awards. The stop-motion production has an 8-in-9 chance of delivering the third Oscar of del Toro’s illustrious career. If that remaining 1-in-9 chance were to stun the Dolby Theater audience, look to Marcel the Shell with Shoes On as the most likely upset pick.
Best Documentary Feature
This is one of the toughest categories to predict. In most of the other close races this year, there’s at least a pretty clear top two. Not so for best documentary feature, where we have three films all within 16 percentage points of one another. Navalny is the popular pick, both due to its present-day relevance as an exposé of Russia, and due to its Producers Guild and BAFTA wins. But my model works category-by-category, and those two award shows don’t have nearly the track record in best documentary that they have in other races, meaning Fire of Love or All the Beauty and Bloodshed could easily take this category.
Best International Feature
The closeness of this race is my model’s single boldest prediction of the year. Not best actress, not best costume design, though it does go against conventional wisdom in those races, among others. This award is looked at as a 100 percent lock for All Quiet on the Western Front. And it makes perfect sense! How can the only international feature among the ten best movies of the year not, by definition, be the best international feature of the year? The logic is perfectly sound, but that’s no guarantee that individual voters behave in any particular way. Just remember: Pan’s Labyrinth was nominated for six Oscars and won three, the only international film in its year nominated for more than one Oscar, yet it somehow lost this category.
Best Production Design
We haven’t had a best production design winner from outside the list of best picture nominees since The Great Gatsby won the award nine years ago. And yet, despite taking that into account, the math is surprisingly confident in Babylon’s ability to break that streak. Wins from the BAFTAs and the Art Directors Guild, among others, boosted Florencia Martin and Anthony Carlino into pole position.
While not as extreme as best international feature, this is another race where I’m afraid people are way too confident in All Quiet on the Western Front. Yes, it is still the favorite, but after Elvis’ win in the final precursor of the year this past Sunday night (where All Quiet wasn’t nominated), we have ourselves a genuine race. Mandy Walker made history as the first female cinematographer to win the American Society of Cinematographers’ feature film category, and could repeat that history if she were to also claim the Oscar.
Best Film Editing
For those keeping score at home, this is the fifth category led by Everything Everywhere All at Once. The actual number of wins could easily be higher or lower, given how close so many categories are (including this one, going up against Top Gun: Maverick) this year. But if it does win five or more, including the top prize, it would be the first best picture winner to accumulate that many trophies since the first year I calculated mathematical predictions, when The Artist won five Oscars.
Best Visual Effects
Forgot to fill out your office Oscar pool until right before the submission deadline and need to cut corners? Just check off Avatar: The Way of Water for Best Visual Effects and carry on. It’s not a guarantee, but there’s a 5-in-6 chance it gets called up to the stage. The Avatar franchise would join Alien, Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings, King Kong, and Star Wars as franchises to win multiple visual effects awards at the Oscars.
Best Costume Design
The popular pick here is Elvis, and I can’t disagree given the relatively small margin separating the top two. After all, Elvis won the BAFTA and the Costume Designers Guild and leads in the betting markets – what more do you need to know? Turns out, quite a bit: In addition to the Critics Choice Awards, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever won a slew of under-the-radar awards, just barely enough to catapult it into first place for one of the most surprising picks in this article. Take this for what you will, but the last time the BAFTAs whiffed on this category was the year that the first Black Panther movie won the Oscar.
Best Makeup and Hairstyling
This category is important in more ways than one. The winner of best makeup and hairstyling is exciting in and of itself, of course. But, believe it or not, it could give us a slight indication of which way the night is heading in the best actor race. The same two films are in the top two spots. For all of the belief about voters trying to spread the love around, my research indicates just the opposite, that voters are more likely to vote for their favorite films up and down the ballot. Statistics currently gives both to Elvis by an unconvincing margin.
Best Original Score
This is the only category of the night in which all five nominees are above 10 percent, so you can’t go wrong guessing any of them to win. You’ll have to forgive the model for basically punting on this one. The fuel of a model is data, and when it comes to best score, we’re running on a dangerously low tank. Even in a normal year, there just aren’t that many reliable predictors of best score, but this year, shows like the Critics Choice Awards chose Tár, not nominated here, so that’s not particularly helpful. The data we do have suggest a slight lead for Babylon.
Best Original Song
Going up against the best picture favorite, perennial nominee Diane Warren, and a couple of up-and-coming singers named … Lady Gaga and Rihanna? No problem at all for “Naatu Naatu,” the first song from an Indian film to be nominated for an Oscar. Most voters don’t speak Telugu, but the song and dance are catchy enough to be universal. Propelled by Golden Globe and Critics Choice wins, the RRR tune has a 46 percent chance to win the award.
We’re in year three of a combined best sound category, so the model is still a little unsure of how to handle this prediction. Fortunately, just like with Dune a year ago, I got a little lucky. It turns out that Top Gun: Maverick would have been favored to win either best sound editing or best sound mixing, thanks in part to wins from both of their respective guilds, so it stands to reason that Tom Cruise’s return to the skies is also favored in the combined category, and has just under a 50-50 shot to win it.
There isn’t enough data to predict the three short film categories mathematically, though betting markets currently favor An Irish Goodbye for live-action short (with Le Pupile extremely close behind), The Boy, The Mole, the Fox and the Horse for animated short, and The Elephant Whisperers for documentary short.
We began by talking about the acting races. But in truth, that’s just the start of a long list of close competitions. There are going to be twists and turns up and down the ballot. Some will fall in line with the probabilities; some will be upsets. All will make for a thrilling Year 95.
Ben Zauzmer is the author of Oscarmetrics: The Math Behind the Biggest Night in Hollywood.